Setting Canadian History Right?: A Response to Ken Coates’ ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools’

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.[1] 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. The first of these is the essay’s argument that not enough has been done to capture the positive impacts of residential schools and the success stories of survivors. Coates invokes his week in Inuvik to argue for “a shared description of the experience of residential schools,” while recognizing that “not all students left the residential school broken. In fact,” he argues, “there are amazing stories of resilience and agency in every school.” Coates also suggests that scholars have missed a whole other realm of experiences by focusing on historical trauma. “The focus on the negative,” he argues, “while clearly justified in many personal and community instances, leaves the country with a distorted view of Indigenous realities.” The result, he notes, is “an account of residential schools [that] is not sufficiently nuanced.”

Unfortunately, Coates offers few suggestions for what a more “nuanced” history would look like. And readers of his essay might be forgiven for asking: how do you add nuance to a system that forcibly removed children from their families, that used violence and coercion to eliminate Indigenous languages and culture, and that – as Ian’s research has shown – allowed thousands of children around the country to not only suffer from hunger and malnutrition for decades but, in one particularly egregious case, subjected nearly 1,000 students to a scientific experiment without their knowledge or consent?[2]

Yet, the reality is such nuanced histories already exist. This is particularly true of the many memoirs and autobiographies written by residential school survivors themselves. The residential school memoirs of Basil Johnson, Theodore Fontaine, and Bev Sellars (to highlight three of many examples) tell compelling stories of trauma, resistance, and resurgence from the perspective of individuals who not only overcame the profound abuse they faced in these institutions but went on to become important community leaders.[3]

This leads to the second, and equally problematic, element of the piece. “Perhaps it is time to refocus attention away from Residential Schools,” he argues, “the devastating impact of which is well known and the constructive elements largely ignored.” He suggests that the focus on the harms of residential schools needs to be redirected towards other topics, namely “the roots of Indigenous marginalization (including residential schools), contemporary social, economic and cultural challenges, and significant examples of Aboriginal people moving beyond the past.”

But to do this, Coates suggests, Canadians – including, presumably, young historians (Indigenous or non-Indigenous), former residential school students, Indigenous people, and settler Canadians – both need to and should turn their attention primarily towards other topics. “The residential school story has been well and extensively told,” he suggests, “and if there are gaps in the description, that is understandable given the horrendous experiences of many thousands of the Aboriginal students.” The solution, then, is to “take a few steps forward” and understand that the “serious problems and transitions occurred only in the last 60 years” as well as stories of “Indigenous resilience, creativity, determination and renaissance.”

Though we agree with Coates that Canada’s colonial legacy is complex, deep-seated, and extends far beyond the legacy of Indian Residential Schools – something, we think, that no historian of residential schooling would disagree with – there still remain so many unanswered questions about the residential school system itself. Shortly after Ian’s revelations about the residential school nutrition experiments hit the news in 2013, he was flooded with accounts from survivors and their families of what they believe may have been additional scientific and medical experiments at the schools. Crystal’s research on the history of education and residential schools in the Northwest Territories explores questions about Indigenous childhood, gender, and physical and sexual violence at these institutions in a region, which we know little about. The narrative is neither complete nor fully understood. Historians have only explored the tip of the iceberg.

All of this, then, leads to the question: who, exactly, is Coates debating with aside from a straw-man of those – perhaps historians, survivors, politicians, journalists and others – who use residential schools as a “mono-causal for contemporary difficulties” in Indigenous communities? Why, more importantly, did Coates feel compelled to write this piece? Coates offers no examples of the specific individuals or groups he sees as being part of this broader problem and gives little indication that he has engaged with the recent literature on the history of residential schools. In fact, the only scholars mentioned by name are J.R. Miller and John Milloy, two historians whose books on the schools were published during the 1990s. Since then, there has been an explosion of literature that has asked fresh questions about how colonial policy was enacted through the establishment of residential schools in Australia, the United States, and Canada – not to mention a huge expansion of memoirs and autobiographies by residential school survivors from around the country. Even so, questions remain unanswered and we continue to lack nuanced histories of how a Canadian education system – one that sought to destroy Indigenous families, cultures, languages, and economies – remained in place until the closure of the last residential school, Grollier Hall, in 1996.

Another serious problem with this line of argument is that, although Coates wants us to steer away from monocausal arguments about the long-term impacts of residential schools, he errs in the opposite direction by completely glossing over the very real and well-documented intergenerational impacts of these schools. These are far ranging and many communities are still struggling to deal with the multiple social, cultural, economic, physical, emotional, and psychological legacies of these schools – after all, the last school closed less than 20 years ago. In fact, not only have multiple studies shown that survivors themselves have been disproportionately prone to a whole range of adverse physical and mental health outcomes than those who didn’t attend residential schools, but recent studies have suggested that the same is also true of their children and grandchildren.[4] Residential schools, in other words, affect and will affect generations who have never set foot in one of these institutions. And we are unsure how focusing on the positive stories of residential schools that Coates wants us to place a greater focus on will change these realities of intergenerational historical trauma.

As historians, both of us come at this topic from very different perspectives but we both reacted strongly to Coates’ essay. Crystal, a Gwich’in woman from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, has grappled with the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and has borne witness to the many devastating effects of colonialism. Having the support of her community, Crystal has experienced first hand how crucially important this topic is (not just to Indigenous people but to all Canadians), but also the complexities and nuances of lived experiences. Ian, for his part, is a non-Indigenous, settler historian who came into the history of residential schools through the accidental discovery of a series of nutrition experiments conducted on nearly 1,000 residential school students between 1948 and 1952. Since then, he has presented more than a dozen talks on the topic of these nutrition experiments, including at public forums held for survivors of the experiments and their families.

While our experiences and backgrounds differ, one thing that we both agree upon is the fact that, around the country, the loudest voices speaking about residential schools have been survivors and their families. And both of us have had the opportunity to speak (and, more importantly, listen) to many survivors over the past several years. One place where we agree with Coates is in his call to highlight the strength and ability of former residential school students, many of whom have gone on to lead incredible lives as artists, teachers, politicians, academics, community leaders, business owners and any number of paths.

But – and this is vitally important – their success typically had nothing to do with the schools themselves. In fact most survivors are quick to highlight that their success was in spite of residential schools, not because of them. And many did not overcome the burden of their experiences: far too many people died too young, many led and continue to lead troubled lives, unable to overcome the trauma of residential schools. Yet even those who are leading highly successful lives recognize the incredible need for continued research, which was recently echoed by political leaders, former students, and others in the Northwest Territories when Crystal discussed Coates’ article with communities. And Indigenous people, such as Augie Merasty – Cree man and residential school survivor – continue to publish memoirs that shed new light on their experiences.[5] This is because there is still so much healing that remains and because the damage that residential schools caused to individuals and communities runs incredibly deep.

All of this, however, is not to say that dealing with the legacy of residential schools requires us to ignore the broader context of Canadian colonialism and Indigenous resurgence. For Crystal, being Indigenous in Canada today is exciting as a new generation of educated and fiercely-committed Indigenous youth place themselves front and centre in politics, academia, business, law, public service, and the arts. Indigenous youth are insisting that their histories be told in various different ways.

Dene Nahjo, for instance, is a group of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous emerging leaders in the Northwest Territories that are living, learning, and celebrating Indigenous culture on the land through the guidance of elders. They also poignantly call for more historical study of the residential school system:

To learn from our elders, we must cultivate relationships and understanding. The work of historians is absolutely essential to this; our communities have been faced with such rapid change over the last century that it is difficult to comprehend the depth of experience that our families have faced. Far too often the tragic result of residential schools and colonialism generally is that we are not able to hear people’s truths first hand; because they are not ready to share, because we are not ready to hear, or because they have left us too soon. Gathering individual and collective experiences, and situating them in a broader context, has been an important focus of scholarly research and should continue to be encouraged and supported.

Celebrating the accomplishments of our people, and committing ourselves to action for a better future, does not exist separately from acknowledging our individual and shared histories. Rather, it is built on the foundation of who we are, who we have been, and what we have been through together. Knowing that history – good and bad, tragic and beautiful – is our right and responsibility, and one that is shared with every person in this country.

The Native Youth Sexual Health Network encourages today’s youth to share their own experiences and family histories of colonialism – including the intergenerational impact of residential schools – while exploring expressions of Indigenous feminism by beading condoms. And the team of strong women who initiated and now lead the Idle No More movement seek to maintain government transparency and accountability on various issues, not the least of which is the legacy of residential schools. As young historians, we are incredibly excited about all of the very important and good work that our generation is undertaking in academic and non-academic contexts. It is work that is not just meaningful, academically, but that is also increasingly community driven and therefore promises to have a meaningful impact outside of the university.

Another way we know that there is still much more to be done regarding the history of residential schools is to look at the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Although the TRC has been tasked with answering as many of these questions as possible, it has been stonewalled at every turn by the federal government and some churches, making it unclear whether the whole story will ever be uncovered. The perpetrators of these crimes at residential schools, moreover, were never compelled to appear at TRC hearings, nor were the federal bureaucrats responsible for the design and administration of the school system. As Crystal undertook the final stages of her doctoral research, she was faced with a nine-month ATIPP (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy) application process at our National Archives, Library and Archives Canada, and was granted access to less than half of the files she requested. Ian is facing similar institutional barriers as he tries to follow up on stories of other possible medical and scientific experiments in residential schools and, to that end, we are both convinced that there is a wide body of never-seen-before archival records that remain in the federal government’s tight grip. One result of these bureaucratic hurdles is that, until now, it has been left to communities to tell their own stories of these institutions, whether at public TRC hearings, at community events, or even to historians like ourselves.

Which brings us back to Coates’ assertion that we need to “refocus attention away from Residential Schools.” When they prematurely shut down the important work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation – a group which had funded hundreds of projects directed at healing the legacy of residential schools – the message was clear: our responsibility for promoting healing is done. To their credit, they apologized, paid restitution to survivors, and established the TRC. Never mind that they were forced to do the last two as the result of what was, until that time, the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history – something the government fought against, tooth and nail, for years – and that the apology was followed shortly after by Stephen Harper’s 2009 assertion that Canada has “no history of colonialism.”

The apology, moreover, has since become something of a catch-all. For instance, when the federal government was forced to admit that they, indeed, knew about the nutrition experiments well before the revelations were made public – and that they did not inform survivors of that fact – the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development nonetheless refused to apologize to the survivors about the experiments specifically, because “the federal government’s 2008 apology to victims of residential schools includes children and adults who were subjected to nutritional experiments.”

What is worse is that the apology and the settlement agreement were both remarkably narrow in their scope. Métis residential schools survivors were not included in either the apology or the settlement agreement, nor were survivors of residential schools operated in Newfoundland and Labrador due to an arcane jurisdictional dispute. Nor were students who were placed in distant hospitals, tuberculosis sanatoria, boarding homes, and receiving centres – often for years at a time, hundreds of kilometers from their homes – and sometimes without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Reconciliation, it seems, is something that will be interpreted in the narrowest possible terms and will only be made available to those capable of forcing the federal government’s hand through the courts.

In their provocative 1995 essay, historians Jarvis Robin Brownlie and Mary-Ellen Kelm stated that “we owe it to ourselves, and to the people whose past we study, to approach our work with an awareness of its political ramifications and a consciousness of our own location with respect to the subject manner.”[6] Brownlie and Kelm’s words continue to be relevant for researchers in Canada. As historians of a new generation, we encourage our academic colleagues to consider their own status not only as scholars writing from a position of privilege, but as Canadians living in a country whose past and present has been fundamentally shaped by settler colonialism and dispossession. And the fact that most of the overwhelmingly white, settler community of Canadian historians have benefitted directly, and in profound ways, from Canada’s history of settler colonialism means that we need to be especially careful to avoid speaking for Indigenous peoples or passing judgement about which stories are worth telling.

Crystal Fraser is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Her dissertation is entitled “‘Making Us Into Nice White Kids’: Education, Residential Schools, and Indigenous Resistance in the Northwest Territories, 1950s to 1990s.” You can find her on Twitter at @crystalfraser. Ian Mosby is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University.


[1] Ken Coates, “Second Thoughts about Residential Schools,” The Dorchester Review 4, 2 (Autumn/Winter 2014): 25-29.

[2] Ian Mosby, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952Histoire sociale/Social History, XLVI, No. 91 (Mai/May 2013), 615-642.

[3] Basil Johnston, Indian School Days (Toronto: Key Porter, 1988); Theodore Fontaine, Broken Circle?: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools?: A Memoir (Victoria: Heritage House, 2010); and Bev Sellars, They Called Me Number One?: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013).

[4] See, for instance, A. Bombay, K. Matheson, & H. Anisman, “The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma.” Transcultural Psychiatry, 51.3 (2014): 320-338. For a background on the social, cultural, physical and psychological impacts of the residential school experience on survivors, themselves, see the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, including: D. Chansonneuve, Reclaiming Connections: Understanding Residential School Trauma Among Aboriginal People (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2005) and R. Corrado and I. Cohen, Mental Health Profiles for a Sample of British Columbia’s Aboriginal Survivors of the Canadian Residential School System(Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003).

[5] Joseph Auguste (Augie) Merasty and David Carpenter, The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir (Winnipeg: University of Regina Press, 2015).

[6] Jarvis Robin Brownlie and Mary-Ellen Kelm, “Desperately Seeking Absolution: Native Agency as Colonialist Alibi?” Canadian Historical Review 76, 4 (December 1995), 543.

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One thought on “Setting Canadian History Right?: A Response to Ken Coates’ ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools’

  1. Donald Cochrane

    Perhaps he’s trying to convince himself,. Just a thought from a mid teenage prairie white boy who attended Canada’s Armed Forces boarding School Equivalent in the early Sixties in Montreal. One of 5800 in Canada between 1954 and 1965. In exchange for a little education board and room we were treated to experiments carried out by the infamous Allen Clinic of McGill University ,regular armed forces basic training (but running for two years) The result as you may know was the Kubark and current torture manuals used by the CIA and Military extensively in Guantanimo and elsewhere. We were the lucky ones. Some were to observe Atomic Bomb Tests up close.
    Oh yes and about the food, the less said the better. I can assure you our rations and daily meals bore no resemblance to actual Armed Forces food allowances. I suspect that was just some enterprising cooks who might have traded our food for the slop we ate plus a sweetener. At least that’s what a professional org I belong to thought, when we also were blessed with that same slop at an international event organized in and by by our Montreal Executive Director (fired) . Like the food quality, our professional entertainment budget $50,000 at the dinner bought us a Church Choir,!.

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