Parents, Their Children, and the State: Intimate Perspectives on Reconciliation in Porcupines and China Dolls

By Hazlett, Emily | English Studies in Canada, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Parents, Their Children, and the State: Intimate Perspectives on Reconciliation in Porcupines and China Dolls


Hazlett, Emily, English Studies in Canada


Since the knowledge of abuses in residential schools became more widespread, Aboriginal groups have campaigned for redress regarding the wrongs they endured in the schools at the hands of the Canadian state and the church organizations that ran them. These schools, often failing to educate students due to their meagre resources, became sites of abuse, neglect, and disease aimed at assimilating Aboriginal children (Brant Castellano 255). Forbidden from speaking their languages, children suffered numerous injuries, including kidnapping, sexual abuse, beatings, confinement, and forced labour, to name only a few (256-57). Despite knowing of these abuses, federal bureaucrats justified the schools on the grounds that "Indian children can learn and absorb nothing from their ignorant parents but barbarism" (Milroy quoted in Brant Castellano 255). D.C. Scott, perhaps one of the bureaucrats most closely linked to residential schools, refused to waver from his department's policy of assimilation even after learning of high death rates. Describing his policy in words that are likely shocking to a modern reader, Scott insisted the schools were "geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem" (Scott quoted in Brant Castellano 255). The schools, widely implemented after the 1920s through the Indian Act, forcibly removed children from their homes, families, and communities. Indeed, the oft-cited goal was to "kill the Indian in the child" (Brant Castellano 250). In recent years, campaigns aimed at state recognition of these abuses as well as restitution can be said to have been successful in many ways. In 2006 a settlement agreement was reached to provide $1.9 billion in financial compensation to survivors of residential schools. The agreement also created the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first of its kind initiated in a Western democracy, the commission works to acknowledge abuse, bear witness to survivors' testimonies, and promote awareness. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement came into effect in 2007, providing financial compensation to former students beginning at $10,000, with the possibility of substantially more for survivors of sexual or physical abuse. A parallel Aboriginal Healing Foundation was created at the same time, although it lost its funding in March of 2010.

While Aboriginal groups continue to make claims against the Canadian state regarding issues of sovereignty, Indian status, renaming, and land claims, redress movements framed around residential schools and sexual abuse have been the most successful and, arguably, are the most dominant in mainstream Canadian media (Henderson 6). (1) At the same time, redress discourse has been criticized for forcing claimants to articulate their victimization through Western conceptions of healing, trauma, and imprisonment. While these redress tropes are limited in how they can communicate historical wrongs, fiction writing can expand on limited conceptions of colonialism by exploring its intended intergenerational effects. As a specific example, I will demonstrate how Robert Arthur Alexie's 2002 novel Porcupines and China Dolls thematizes the effects of the state's assimilationist policies on the family by altering the very language used to name kin, emphasizing temporality and tense shifts. I will begin by providing some context for residential school redress discourse, looking at both ways in which it is problematic and also why it has become central to Aboriginal redress campaigns. I will then move to a discussion of how Alexie's novel resists the implicit rules of redress discourse to explore the effects of colonialism beyond the schools and on the intimate relationships of Aboriginal people. I will end by demonstrating how the novel's failure to imagine positive healing experiences for the female characters risks normalizing both patriarchy and violence against women, finally focusing on some contemporary challenges facing Aboriginal women and children.

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Parents, Their Children, and the State: Intimate Perspectives on Reconciliation in Porcupines and China Dolls
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