Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Reconciliation or Racialization? Contemporary Discourses about Residential Schools in the Canadian Prairies

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

Reconciliation or Racialization? Contemporary Discourses about Residential Schools in the Canadian Prairies

Article excerpt


The residential school system is one of the darkest examples of Canada's colonial policies implemented to eradicate Aboriginal peoples (1) from settler society. Lasting for over 100 years and ending in the mid-1990s, the extensive government- and church-run school system was "characterized by forced removal of families; systemic physical and sexual assault; spiritual, psychological and emotional abuse; and malnutrition, inhumane living conditions, death, and murder" (Cannon & Sunseri, 2011, p. 278). The system accomplished what is today considered cultural genocide against Canada's Aboriginal peoples (Tasker, 2015). Despite the gravity of this historical event, it did not make its way into classrooms and official curriculum until recent years with initiatives such as Project of Heart (2) (2016). Recently released recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) include calls to action for education for reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of an equal relationship between the Aboriginal peoples and the non-Aboriginal peoples of Canada (Sinclair, 2016). Included in the TRC calls to action is a mandatory kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum on the history and legacy of residential schools, and identification of related teacher training needs.

This article contributes to the recommendation of training considerations in regards to teaching by showing how contemporary discourses about residential schools, cited by well-meaning educators, can re-inscribe unequal colonial-settler relations and racialize Aboriginal peoples. Harmful colonial discourses are often reproduced in schools (Tupper, 2014). While there is potential for the acquisition of historical information about residential schools to centre long-erased and marginalized Aboriginal perspectives, careful attention must be paid to the knowledge and subjectivities produced in the process. Employing a post-structural discourse analysis of excerpts from interviews with teachers in the Canadian Prairies, I trace the ways in which settler innocence and Aboriginal culpability are (re)produced through discourses about residential schools by positioning settlers as empathetic and critically conscious, and Aboriginal peoples as collectively lacking. I underline how an emphasis on the residential schools as a past event means there are no present-day perpetrators of racism, leaving Aboriginal peoples to shoulder the blame for ongoing inequality. This article demonstrates if learning about residential schools is meant to further the goals of reconciliation and different settler-Aboriginal relationships, then the subjectivities produced alongside this historical knowledge acquisition must be considered; otherwise, educators risk re-inscribing the same colonial subjectivities that justified residential schools in their inception.

Residential Schools

Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian problem. (Duncan Campbell Scott, as cited in Thobani, 2007, p. 198) (3)

The term residential schools refers to an extensive school system put into place by the Canadian government and administered by churches, which operated from the 1880s into the last decade of the 20th century. Approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children were separated from their families to attend residential schools (Government of Canada, 2015). While the said goals of the system were to educate Aboriginal children and assimilate them into Euro-Canadian ways of life, the system not only failed to provide Aboriginal peoples with skills necessary to flourish in settler society, but also purposefully destroyed Aboriginal languages and cultural traditions, devastating thousands of families and entire communities. While "the task [of the system] was [said] to transform children from 'savages' to 'citizens' by inculcating the values of Christianity and industry so that the youngsters could take up positions of 'functioning' members of the emerging capitalist society" (Comack, 2012, p. …

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