Education “After” Residential Schools

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Editorial Note: This article introduces a series of reflections to be published on Active History in the weeks to come. It is also an invitation for additional contributions that relate to the themes sketched out below.

By Clinton Debogorski, Magdalena Milosz, Martha Walls, and Karen Bridget Murray

We are settler-colonial educators writing to settler-colonial educators against the backdrop of “decades of efforts by Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous scholars, [who have long] highlight[ed] the problems of residential schools and colonial education more generally” (Canadian Historical Association, 2018).[1]

We are all members of a community: the Canadian university system.

This same system propagated untruths about residential schools and their roles in settler colonialism.

This same system silenced knowledge, “sanctioned ignorance” (Spivak, 1999: 2), and trained many of the functionaries who made the residential school system possible.

This same system dignified some of the most egregious figures in residential school history, even celebrating the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott served as president of the Royal Society of Canada. He received an honourary doctorate from both the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. That these accolades continue to stand is a testament to how the residential school system remains deeply rooted within the university community today.

As many have said, it is long past time for decolonizing post-secondary education.

Our reflections in this series speak to an omission in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action, which says nothing about post-secondary educators as independent actors. Individual teachers and learners are, of course, not passive recipients of directives. They are agents of change in their own right. So regardless of how any government, university administration, faculty association, union, or other organization might respond to the TRC, individual scholars will invariably play an essential role in shaping university education “after” Residential Schools.

If decolonization is the objective, and if it is to be more than a metaphor (Tuck and Yang, 2012), our roles as individual teachers and learners demand deep personal reflection – in every aspect of our work, from curriculum content, pedagogical practice, use of resources, academic priorities, hiring processes, and so on. Concerning hiring practices, it is important to underscore that the process of recruiting Indigenous scholars and all historically barred groups remains painfully, inexcusably, and unjustly slow. Our reflections are meant to complement calls for the immediate overhaul of hiring and tenure practices.

We understand we have a lot to learn, including from those at the forefront of conversations about decolonizing universities. And we are fully cognizant of the just critiques of our positions as outsiders who have benefited from a myriad of discriminatory and violent practices, including settler-colonialism, White supremacy, and genocide.

The words of social theorist bell hooks are relevant to us: “Ongoing resistance to white supremacism,” hooks writes, “is genuine when it is not determined in any way by the approval or disapproval of people of color. This does not mean that they do not listen and learn from critique, but rather they understand fully that their choice to be anti-racist must be constant and sustained to give truth to the reality that racism can end” (2003, p. 64). We extend this insight to ourselves as settler-colonial scholars striving to decolonize our teaching and learning, which similarly must be based on an enduring and persistent commitment to decolonization and willingness to learn, even in the face of criticisms.

Post-secondary Education and Reconciliation Politics

Critiques of reconciliation politics raise important questions for teachers and learners in the wake of the TRC’s work. For instance:

Will we treat the residential schools as a past event, or, instead, as part of a system that endures in new forms, such as in settler-colonial child “protection” programs?

Will we accept a definition of residential schools as cultural milieus, or will we recognize their rootedness in militaristic endeavours?

Will we tell histories that harmonize relations between settler-colonial and Indigenous Peoples, or will we understand that such moves might extend settler-colonial privileges and the forms of violence upon which they stand?

Will we consider that our teaching and learning might serve the interests of the prime beneficiaries of genocide even while we bestow upon ourselves the mantle of “ally” with those targeted for genocide?

Alternatively, will we reflect on what it means to teach and learn for a post-genocidal education by, among other things, teaching to respect treaties, land reclamations, Indigenous control over Indigenous education systems, and Indigenous care of their children?[2]

Some might find it too arduous, daunting, or uncomfortable to grapple with such questions and the decolonizing work to which they point. However, to tacitly or overtly revert to the default mainstream is not an innocent move. Sara Ahmed’s (2016) insight comes to mind: “If our happiness depends on turning away from violence,” Ahmed writes, “our happiness is violence.” Similarly, if our comfort as educators depends on refusing to confront the ongoing violence of settler-colonialism, our comfort is settler-colonial violence. But facing these truths and working towards a different kind of university is not something one can do on one’s own. It requires collaborative effort in both thought and action.

Collaborative Reflection

Our reflections over the coming weeks draw variously upon two analytical orientations that we see as useful tools (not the only or sufficient ones) for centring the everyday work of settler-colonial teachers and learners.

The first approach is auto-ethnography. Auto-ethnography situates the “particular experiences [of] individuals in tension with dominant expressions of discursive power” (Neumann, 1996, p. 189), such as those relating to government narratives about the aims and purposes of reconciliation. Through working collaboratively to share some of our thoughts on teaching and learning, we seek to disrupt, for instance, any conception of reconciliation that fails to confront settler-colonial violence.

The second approach focuses on identifying blind spots in discussions about residential schools and their relationship to settler-colonial power. The identification of blind spots, such as those concerning the past and present character of the residential school system, can challenge hegemonic assumptions. Each of us has researched the residential school system, but from different vantage points, specifically architecture, history, philosophy and political science. We think much can be illuminated by sharing what we have found to be missing in debates about the political salience of these schools. To be clear, however, we do not share these thoughts according to some misguided presumption of expertise. We want to learn from each other, to share what we are learning, and to learn from and work with everyone who seeks to build post-genocidal education.

The reflections to be published over the next four weeks emphasize the impossibility of imagining – let alone realizing – a way of collective life on the other side of settler-colonial violence without the broad shift in knowledge, attitudes, and practices that decolonization demands.

Individual scholars are agents (clearly not the only ones) in shaping what is and what will be. There is no view from nowhere. There is no neutrality. Silencing oneself or turning away are political acts, the implications of which need to be talked about and challenged. This is our starting point.

Clinton Debogorski is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Magdalena Milosz is a doctoral candidate at McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture. Martha Walls is an Associate Professor of History at Mount Saint Vincent University. Karen Bridget Murray is an Associate Professor of Politics at York University. We express sincere appreciation for exemplary research assistance provided by Ryan Kelpin, doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at York University.


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[1] The work for this collaboration has benefited from almost two years of conversations with many people, including those who attended various workshops at the Canadian Political Science Meetings in 2017 and 2019. We are indebted to Allan Downey who provided us with thoughtful feedback that enhanced our respective reflections. We are also deeply grateful to Sarah De Leeuw for generously sharing with us her thoughts on education “after” residential schools and also for contributing to the launch of this initiative. The writing of this introduction has benefited from almost two years of conversations with many people, including those who attended various workshops at the Canadian Political Science Meetings in 2017 and 2019.

[2] The phrase “post-genocidal education” derives from Clinton Debogorski’s forthcoming doctoral dissertation.

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