By Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby
As two young historians of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School System – one finishing her PhD, the other currently in his second postdoctoral fellowship – we were wary when we saw Ken Coates’ recent opinion piece in the Dorchester Review. At a first glance, the title, in particular, had us worried: “Second Thoughts about Residential Schools” brought to mind Thomas Flanagan’s misguided monograph First Nations? Second Thoughts. Though deeply concerned at what lay ahead, Coates is an historian we both respect a great deal, so, from our computers in Alberta and Ontario, we read on.
The commentary itself was clearly written to spark a debate. Like many of the editorials that fill Canadian newspapers, it is written in a conversational style without footnotes or references and – more importantly – it attempts to challenge what Coates’ sees as hegemonic narratives characterizing the study of Indian residential schools. And given that the online version of the article (like every page on the Dorchester Review website) is flanked by quotes from David Frum proclaiming that the journal is “Setting Canadian history right,” the essay’s ambition to upend the sacred cows of the Canadian historical profession, itself, are immediately apparent.
Coates stresses that he has “struggled over the last thirty years to make sense of the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal people” and the essay is presented as a culmination of that “struggle.” To be sure, his is a piece about how academics might struggle with their own politics under the veil of objectivity and how that relates to the kinds of historical research we undertake. Another historian, one specializing in Indian residential schooling, might have more deeply probed, for instance, how Indigenous people have struggled with the long legacy and effects of Indian residential schools. Coates, though, begins in a decidedly personal place located well outside of Indigenous experiences: namely, memories of attending an Anglican summer camp located near the Carcross Residential School and spending a week in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, as “the guest of a Catholic research school” where “the rules and regulations almost turned [him] into a twelve-year-old Che Guevera by the time [he] left.”
This leads us to the two most problematic elements of Coates’ essay that, together, constitute the crux of his argument. [Read More]
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