A Structural Pandemic: On Statues, Colonial Violence, and the Importance of History (Part II)

Guides and Scouts at Old Sun School, Alberta, ca. 1930. Credit: Archives of the Girl Guides of Canada, APH2374

Kristine Alexander and Mary Jane Logan McCallum

As we documented in our previous post, looking more closely at the history of Scouting and Guiding reveals that the divide between colonialist violence, fascist discipline, and peaceful pedagogy was not quite as stark as Baden-Powell and his supporters would have us believe. Instead of insisting on the ideological opposition between Scouting and the fascist youth groups of interwar Europe, it might make more sense to understand them as different points on a continuum – what Franziska Roy refers to as a “common grammar” of physical discipline and a desire for racial regeneration that reached across national and political boundaries.[i] An additional key point in all of this – one that has largely eluded both historians and supporters of Scouting and Guiding – is the fact that colonialism and fascism are related entities. As Aimé Césaire wrote seventy years ago, Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.”[ii]

Among Césaire’s concerns – still relevant today – included the modern “relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a class-room monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, [and] a slave driver.”[iii] Militarism, racist pedagogy, and colonialist violence, some of the strongest threads that wove together Baden-Powell’s two lives, were also at the heart of the genocidal education projects developed by settler states during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Canada, these included the federally funded and church-run Indian Residential Schools, where Scout and Guide groups were thought to provide Indigenous students with an important training in appropriate gender roles and physical discipline.

Baden-Powell and his wife Olave visited Canada in 1923. They stayed with Lord and Lady Byng at Government House in Ottawa and visited McGill University and the University of Toronto, both of which awarded Baden-Powell honorary doctorates. While in Toronto, Baden-Powell also gave an invited speech at the Imperial Education Conference, where he proudly claimed that the Guides and Scouts had been “found particularly useful in the schools for Red Indian children, just as [they] had also proved useful in a like manner on the West Coast of Africa and in Baghdad.”[iv]

Throughout the twentieth century, federal Indian schools were vital contexts for Scouting and Guiding in Canada. The Canadian government financially supported Guides and Scouts in federal Indian schools as a means to encourage enfranchisement, assimilation to white settler standards and integration into white Canadian society and away from Indigenous community. At Indian residential schools, Scout and Guide leaders were Department of Indian Affairs Indian agents, principals and teachers, RCMP and their wives, nurses, and Christian missionaries – not, as often was the case elsewhere, the children’s parents; a key goal of Indian education was to remove children from the influence of their families.[v]

At the same time, Scouting and Guiding were – and in some contexts, remain – proponents of what historian Philip Deloria calls the modern practice of “playing Indian” – appropriating and mimicking so-called uncivilized and pre-historic Indigenous cultural practices with the aim of strengthening modern white bodies and spirits.[vi] Much of Baden-Powell’s writing about and for Scouts and Guides emphasized the value of Indian play in just these terms. In Adventuring to Manhood (1936), for instance, he claimed that “most of the savage tribes about the world go in for training their boys to be strong and brave men because the safety and welfare of their nation depend on the toughness and courage of its men, and not, as in civilized countries, on their cleverness at office work.”[vii]

The promotion of Indian play and the benefits of nature for settler youth in fact relied on the elimination of “real” Indigenous people, land, resources, language, cultures, and governance structures, and firmly set them in the past for safe and easy appropriation towards their own ends. The fantasy of playing Indian to become better citizens masks the reality of colonial oppression and laws that subjected Indigenous people to forced assimilation in increasingly punitive ways, especially between 1880 and 1950. In Western Canada, a “Pass System,” never formally recognized in law, forbade the movement of First Nations off reserve boundaries without permission from Indian agents. The Residential School System, and its successor, Child Welfare Services, removed children from families in an effort to integrate and assimilate them to the norms of “Canadians.” The Indian Act outlawed Indigenous legal and governance systems, rendered First Nations women’s legal status and community membership subject to their husbands’, and criminalized Indigenous ceremony and customs such as Potlatching and Sun Dancing. Without rights to participate in formal decision making processes of Canadian federal, provincial and municipal governments, First Nations people were also by and large barred from voting, gathering in groups, establishing successful farms and businesses, and freely accessing higher education and the justice system. These were enforced by the dominant white settler population, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other policing bodies as well as vigilante settlers.

Having non-Indigenous Scouts and Guides don “Indian dress,” participate in “pow wows,” and perform “Indian dances,” then, was an especially complicated proposition in settler states like Canada – places where imaginary Indians and assimilatory government policies collided with Indigenous nations whose members, contrary to contemporary expectations, were stubbornly refusing to die out. The vital yet vanishing imaginary Indian that was at the heart of so much of the Scout and Guide movements’ outdoor education was a myth that rendered contemporary Indigenous people virtually invisible in modern society. Indian play allowed settler Guides and Scouts, along with their adult leaders, to effectively deny their roles as beneficiaries of colonialism; Scouts and Guides were taught to see Indigenous people (like Leprechauns or Pixies) as historical fantasies and Indigenous lands as “wild,” empty, and ultimately subject to their will.

Kristine Alexander is Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge, where she also directs the Institute for Child and Youth Studies (ICYS).

Mary Jane Logan McCallum is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Winnipeg and Canada Research Chair of Indigenous People, History and Archives.


[i] Franziska Roy, “International Utopia and National Discipline: Youth and Volunteer Movements in Interwar South Asia,” in The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds, and World Views, edited by Ali Raza, Franziska Roy, & Benjamin Zachariah (Delhi: Sage, 2015), 186. See also Chapter 5 of Alexander, Guiding Modern Girls.

[ii] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham (New York & London: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 3.

[iii] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 6.

[iv] Girl Guides’ Gazette X, No. 118 (October 1923): 232.

[v] Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “‘To Make Good Canadians:’ Girl Guides in Canadian Indian Residential Schools,” MA Thesis, Trent University, 2001.  At University of Winnipeg WinnSpace: http://winnspace.uwinnipeg.ca/handle/10680/1745. Preliminary research has shown that there were Guide groups at about half of all IRS.

[vi] Philip Deloria, Playing Indian: (Yale University Press, 1998).

[vii] Robert Baden-Powell, Adventuring to Manhood (London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd., 1936), 67.

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