Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research? Part 5: The Institutions

By Kathleen Villeneuve

Translated by Robert Twiss from an original publication in HistoireEngagé

On November 25 to 26, 2021 the Université de Montréal hosted the workshop “Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research?” Organized by professors Catherine Larochelle and Ollivier Hubert, the aim of the workshop was to survey the state of research in settler colonial studies, a field which, while it is more developed outside the province, is still in its infancy in Quebec. The workshop was therefore conceived as a first step in the development of the study of Quebecois colonialism, in a context in which “colonial agnosia” still limits debate, in this province perhaps more than elsewhere. The presentations were grouped into thematic panels representing the physical and symbolic spaces through which settler colonialism carves a path.

This fifth and final reflection on the workshop wraps the project up by featuring the work of Ariane Benoît, François Dansereau and Samir Shaheen-Hussain and settler colonialism’s still-visible institutional heritage. At the end, we reflect on the workshop’s concluding words by Caroline-Isabelle Caron and David Meren.

By studying health care provided for adopted Inuit children, Ariane Benoît explores how the imposition of settler culture affects the cultural practices of Indigenous populations, in this case, traditional adoption practices. Conceived of as a way to address social or family needs, this practice (which is very common among the Inuit) is experienced as a positive custom that strengthens ties within the community.

It has, however, been affected by the institutionalization of childcare, first in the twentieth century, when Indigenous children were taken in by religious institutions, then by the Sixties Scoop, when more than 20,000 Inuit children were adopted by non-Indigenous families. In 1976, the creation of the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) aggravated the problem: its operations took into account neither the principles of traditional adoption nor the special needs of Inuit children. It offered few resources to allow the latter to maintain contact with their language and their culture.

Today, however, we are witnessing a degree of reappropriation of childcare by the Inuit. In 2001, a change to the Youth Protection Act required the prioritizing of the placement of Inuit children within their extended family, their village, or at least their territory, before they could be considered for adoption by non-Indigenous families. In 2020, Bill C-92 allowed for more independence in the provision of child protection services by creating a service by and for the Inuit. While some communities have begun to take advantage of these new rights, an unfortunate disconnect between the law and practice still obtains.

François Dansereau studies the intellectual and epistemological dimension of settler colonialism as it manifests in archives. The value of archives is founded in Eurocentric conceptions that recognize an official authority and a legal validity to certain textual documents. Dansereau, emphasizing the formula put forward by Raymond Frogner, mentioned that archives are “legal fictions that evoke sovereignty rights imagined and constructed for the colonial enterprise,” which are inoperative in Indigenous oral traditions. In this sense, the production of archives depends on the de-legitimation of Indigenous stories, perspectives, and cultural systems, making archives and other institutions of memory “hubs” for the effacement of First Peoples.

Archivists adopt a position of neutrality in their professional values that often leads to the absence of critical perspective. The result is a “validation of colonial perspectives and worldviews represented as documentation.” In the same way, the lack of attention to the provenance of documents and the “uncritical insertion of offensive language” in their description constitute, according to Dansereau, a reproduction of colonial violence.

Digital platforms, however, controlled by Indigenous communities are proliferating, especially in the United States, and critical orientations towards archival practices are currently being developed in the Anglophone world. These new orientations aim to foreground archivists’ responsibilities and the societal impact of their work in order to develop the emancipatory and reparatory dimensions of archival practice, especially by contextualizing documents and revising inappropriate descriptions. Unfortunately, this approach has been little explored in Quebec and is, according to Dansereau, largely discredited at the institutional level.

Samir Shaheen-Hussain, an emergency pediatrician, is critical of the medical establishment and its active role in the Canadian colonial project from the very beginning of colonization. Medical colonialism refers to a culture or ideology, rooted in systemic anti-Indigenous racism, that uses medical practices and policies to establish, maintain, and/or advance a genocidal colonial project. As an example of medical colonialism, the doctor cites the rule in Quebec that prohibits parents from accompanying their children during aerial medical transportation, a practice that disproportionately affected the Indigenous populations of Nord-du-Québec before it was abolished in 2018 thanks to the “Hold My Hand” campaign.

This injustice experienced by northern Indigenous communities is determined by historical power relations and by-passed colonial policies. A good example of this is the decision not to supply reserves with medical infrastructure despite recommendations to do so having been made since the 1940’s. The same is true of the thousands of Indigenous children who disappeared “in and through the healthcare system” in the 1970’s.

During the “#aHand2Hold” campaign, the Couillard government initially refused to abolish its non-accompaniment policy, under the pretext that it was financially unfeasible. This refusal to use the State’s budget to benefit the First Peoples, in a country whose prosperity is founded on the monopolization of their lands and their resources, can be seen as an extension of Quebecois colonialism.

The workshop ended with a few concluding words by professors Caroline-Isabelle Caron, from Queen’s University, and David Meren, from the Université de Montréal. Both recalled the importance of word choice in the study of settler colonialism, the need to pay attention to what terminology foregrounds or, on the contrary, hides.

Despite the fundamental importance of the lexicon, David Meren stressed the need to not invest theorization with excessive importance, and to recognize the “messiness” of colonialism as it is experienced in the most intimate layers of individuals’ lives. According to him, we must recognize the limits of analytical frameworks based on the nation, which leave little space for the complexity of the colonial phenomenon. Anchoring ourselves in the local context allows us to transcend the tension between the theory and the historical reality of colonialism, to reveal Indigenous agencies and resistances which would not necessarily be otherwise visible.

Stressing a wind of change in the academic environment, Caroline-Isabelle Caron invites academics to seize this opportunity to deconstruct the historical narrative inherited from colonialism and to “delegitimize colonial sovereignties” in order to leave space for Indigenous perspectives and discourses. She reminds us nevertheless that this responsibility must be shared by the entire population of Quebec if we want to see a real change.

Kathleen Villeneuve is a masters student at the Université de Montréal. She is grateful to Benoît Gaudreault for his invaluable assistance in writing this retrospective.

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