On October 24, 2019, Active History commenced a series on education “after” residential schools with an article written by Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls and Karen Bridget Murray. The series is open ended. Active History welcomes additional contributions on related themes.
By Karen Bridget Murray
…they still kill us [and] take our children…
Audra Simpson (2016)
I moved to Fredericton in 2001 to take up my first tenure-track position. I was hired to teach courses on Canadian politics at the University of New Brunswick. I was an uninvited “guest” on Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaw territory covered by a 1725 peace and friendship treaty (such treaties do not cede land).
Shortly after, I was asked to join a research project on “urban Aboriginal policy.” The fieldwork for the study drew my attention to the Shubenacadie Residential School, which was built on Mi’kmaw lands at Sipekni’katik and operated from 1929 to 1967.
I thought that the newly digitized “School Series” records of the Department of Indian Affairs might hold information about the Dominion of Canada’s role at the school in relation to urban labour market training.
Violence against children at that school was, by then, no secret. Mi’kmaw elder Isabelle Knockwood had brought this violence into public consciousness in Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (1994). The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (2007) had also been reached.
Why did I think, in this political context, that inquiring into urban employment dynamics was a reasonable question to pose with respect to the Shubenacadie Residential School?
Denial comes to mind.
Lee Maracle has said that “[t]o be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial” (2017, location 283 in the digital edition). Denial might nurture in oneself a sense of innocence, as Maracle says, but it is by no means “innocent”.
This point has been driven home to me after reading Daniel Rück and Valerie Deacon’s Active History post on how denial is the “eighth stage of genocide.”
Indigenous scholars and survivors of the genocide of course know more than I could ever know.
I write this reflection to join the chorus of those challenging rampant genocide denial, including where it endures behind closed doors of settler-colonial classrooms in post-secondary education.
The Pan-Territorial Residential School System Ideal
It shouldn’t have taken me this long.
I broke through denial by reading Shubenacadie Residential School records, roughly fifteen years after first hearing about the existence of residential schools.
Pulsating with evidence of violence against children – abject cruelty, including sexual violence, murderous intents, and deaths – the records showed that officials of the Dominion of Canada were well aware of this violence, did nothing to stop it, and expressly sanctioned brute force against children, including the very young and the frailest.
To the office of the Prime Minister, officials were willfully complicit in this genocidal violence, violence that implicated and continues to implicate those who turn away or deny it.
I found myself contemplating the significance of the “pan-territorial residential school system ideal.”
For me, this term conveys the geopolitical purpose of the schools, which included militaristic dimensions.
A pan-territorial residential school system ideal began to be pursued over the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
It was first articulated in 1879 by Nicholas Flood Davin, who had been commissioned by John A. Macdonald to report on the use of residential schools in the United States. Davin favourably assessed their use as a “civilization” strategy, and lauded the “soon [to] be universal” system.
He recommended the immediate opening of four schools in the Dominion but noted that an “extensive application of the principle of boarding schools” would have been preferred if the Indigenous Peoples were not “so largely migratory” (Davin, 1879, pp. 2, 9-11; see also Murray, 2017, p. 753).
Davin proposed this plan in the context of the “disappearance of bison in the wild” that led to widespread famine among Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Continue reading