Pity and Destiny: An Indigenous Student at the Manitoba School for the Deaf, 1904-1916

Manitoba School for the Deaf Building (1891 – 1914), Winnipeg Public Library.

Sandy Barron

Historians of deaf communities and disability can no longer take for granted that our field cuts across those of race, class, and gender in consistent ways. Although in recent years scholarship and activism have begun to redraw and trouble these distinctions, deaf and disability histories in Canada have only begun to wrestle with the nation’s colonial past and present, and how disabled experiences and politics can be refracted and intensified by white supremacy. In reflecting upon this necessary “colonial turn,” I offer the story and commemorative reconstruction of an Indigenous student at the Manitoba School for the Deaf in the early twentieth-century.

Judy Wilson[1] spent her first six years in a Woods Cree community, living with her parents and brother on the land near what is now Carcross, Yukon Territory. In 1903, Judy and her brother were found by a prospector with her deceased parents. Sent to Whitehorse, the children were adopted by an Anglican priest who then relocated with his family to Vancouver in 1904. That year, Judy became the first of four identifiably Indigenous children to attend the Manitoba School for the Deaf (MSD) between 1889 and 1940. Like the others, she had been adopted and was on the path to “citizenship” and had lost status under the 1876 Indian Act as a member of a white settler family. Accompanied by a B.C. Department of Education official, she arrived in Winnipeg in late 1904.

Judy, in the extant records available in The Echo, the MSD’s newspaper, and Annual Reports filed by Principal Duncan McDermid, appears to have learned sign language rapidly, been popular with her schoolmates, and excelled academically. In late 1906, Judy contracted a serious case of scarlet fever and was admitted to the Winnipeg General Hospital. In February of 1907, she died of tuberculosis, after her immune system had been weakened in her struggle against scarlet fever. She was buried in Winnipeg, with school residents and the local deaf community attending her service.

Principal McDermid, in his 1907 MSD Annual Report, mourned her death and called it “inevitable.” In making this argument, he relied on two colonial tropes – the idea of the “disappearing Indian” and the widely accepted settler narrative that Indigenous people were naturally susceptible to TB. McDermid also wrote that Judy was well-regarded and was popular with her fellow students, so much so that she did not feel that she was “different in colour than other children.”[2] McDermid, in constructing Judy as a tragic figure integrated into the life of a settler school, was unknowingly putting his finger squarely on a theoretical and epistemological problem with the dominant twenty-first century framing of the power of disability rhetoric in nineteenth-century North America. Wilson faced both pity and destiny, unlike her settler deaf schoolmates, who faced a paternalism that at least contained the possibility of escape.

Douglas Baynton argues that the language of disability allowed for the political exclusion of women and racialized people in a society that claimed to offer citizenship and liberal rights to all. “Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin to look for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write,” Baynton argues in a phrase that has become a clarion call for the entire field of disability history.[3] Language and tropes that characterized popular stereotypes of disabled people were applied to other groups in order to cast doubt on their capacity to cast votes responsibly, Baynton argues. Scholars and community members, in pursuit of these exceptions from the liberal order, have produced wonderful studies by identifying where liberal models have fallen short.

More recent work, however, has turned toward linking the liberal order itself to racist and colonial legacies. Canadian disability histories need to theorize the colonial and liberal projects together as two sides of the same coin if the field is going to contribute to wider discussions in political and social history. In my pursuit of assumed rules around the attendance of Indigenous children at the MSD, I have settled on an argument that Judy Wilson’s story led me to – Indigenous children were actively barred from settler deaf education before the 1950s, and those who were admitted as members of settler families were seen by their educators as objects of pity and destiny, meaning that they were children who could attend school and develop vocational skills, but not truly graduate without a further transformation into settler citizens. Judy Wilson, then, is the exception that proves the rule – an Indigenous student not barred from attendance at the MSD was still barred in important rhetorical and cultural ways.

A 1916 commemorative piece in The Echo written by missionary and Methodist minister R.O. Armstrong of Kenora, Ontario, makes this point clearly in allegorical, turgid prose. The piece is written in a strange narrative style using an omniscient narrator with access to Judy’s thoughts. Armstrong tells us that, upon arriving at the school, “The Indian girl has at last become conscious that her face is a different colour than those around her.” One night, Wilson asked the school’s matron if God could do anything she asked him for. Seeing “yes” from the matron, she returned to her room. “That night,” Armstrong wrote, “a new prayer was heard in heaven. It marked the new dawn of a new faith in a soul. It marked a new epoch in a history of a race. The Indian girl prayed to be white.”[4] The next morning, Armstrong assured his readers, Wilson awoke in her same skin. After her death, students of the MSD realized something profound, in Armstrong’s telling. “Many of her silent playmates went to her funeral,” Armstrong wrote, “and sought to glance again upon the face they had learned to love. How strange was the support they all gave. With self-repressed excitement they signed to each other ‘changed.’ It was not the natural way. What could it mean? Again the prayer of [Judy Wilson] was answered. Her face was white.”

This prose is maudlin and fantastical. It is also potentially revealing about how hearing allies of Manitoba deaf communities saw deaf Indigenous people. The “new faith” that Armstrong refers to when Wilson prayed was not based in the act of prayer itself, but in the act of praying to be white. One would expect Armstrong, the missionary, to suggest that Wilson could only truly fit into a settler institution like the MSD after a spiritual transformation. He is saying something very different here, though. Wilson, in her journey to acceptance at the MSD, needed to transform in ways that involved her changing not only into a believer, but also racially white. McDermid and Armstrong, nearly ten years apart, both struggled to reconcile Wilson’s Indigeneity with her place in a settler school.

Nineteenth-century rhetoric had portrayed deaf children in similar ways. Without education, reformers argued, deaf children faced a future without God – one of intellectual and spiritual darkness. By 1916, this rhetoric had really just swapped “a future without God” for “a future without work” as the liberal order set its stakes throughout Western Canada. Educators maintained that with education and vocational training deaf children of any background could become productive liberal citizens. Any group, that is, except Indigenous children. This real and rhetorical exclusion points to the reality of a completely different path toward liberal citizenship for Wilson than other students at the MSD. Judy Wilson faced both a “future without work” and a “future without God.” For Armstrong, at least, only in death could Wilson become white. For deaf settler children, liberal institutions offered a constructive pity. Deaf Indigenous children, however, were offered pity and a grim destiny. We can’t theorize that away.

We know that deaf and disabled children experienced disability differently according to intersectional experiences and identities. As Canadians begin to grapple with our country’s colonial past, we need to begin to examine how that colonial past also structures experiences of disability for both Indigenous and white settler deaf youth. In other words, we should consider turning Baynton’s mantra on its head, and recognize that colonialism is everywhere in disability history, but absent in the disability histories we write. “Disability” is a nebulous term. It is, after all, a verb masquerading as a noun, as it labels the action of being disabled by a society unable to accommodate bodily diversity. Deaf and disability historians need to take a colonial turn in their histories, because the meaning of that verb is conditional upon the recognition of the experiential differences between settler and Indigenous Canadians now and in the past.

Sandy Barron is a Vanier Scholar and a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Carleton University in Ottawa. His research focuses on the politics of deaf education in Alberta and Saskatchewan from 1880-1931. He wishes to thank Kristin Snoddon, Dominique Marshall, Laura Madokoro, Helen Kennedy, Tyla Betke, and Sonia Okamoto for their help and advice on this piece. This contribution is cross posted on the blog for the Carleton University Disabilities Research Group: https://cudisabilityresearchgroup.wordpress.com.


[1] “Judy Wilson” is a pseudonym for her adoptive English name, offered to comply with my 2018 FIPPA agreement with the Manitoba Department of Education.

[2] Duncan McDermid, “Annual Report of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind School, Alberta Department of Education,” (Edmonton: Government Printer, 1908): 60. Provincial Reading Room, Edmonton.

[3] Douglas Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, Paul Longmore and Lauri Umanski, eds., 33-57 (New York: NYU Press, 2001), 33.

[4] R.O. Armstrong, “The Indian Girl’s Prayer,” The Echo 26, no. 15 (May 15, 1916), 1-2. Legislative Library of Manitoba, Winnipeg.

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