Thesis: A Colonial Space

A Colonial Space Endeavoring to Do Differently


“No one in my biological family has ever graduated. Why do you think I will?”

This is the question my daughter was fond of repeating during our frequent family discussions about her difficulties in school.  Five years ago, my husband and I took in two of our Saulteaux [1] nieces.  Until that time the girls had spent the majority of their childhoods bouncing around the Saskatchewan foster care system, often truant.  The conversations we had with my daughter were frequently unsettling.  They were conversations I never had with my parents.  I have had to learn how to talk about school without assuming that success and graduation are attainable and inevitable.

One daughter eventually left school in the middle of grade 10 and moved away with a boyfriend to Alberta, following in the footsteps of her mother and aunties and uncles. I often think about our many conversations about school and about graduating. I think about how we were, most likely, talking about two different things. My experience and understanding of school, I realize now, are completely different from what my daughter experiences.  When I talk about school, I am talking about learning and opening doors and paths to higher education. When my daughter talks about school, she speaks with hundreds of years of colonialism resting on her slim shoulders. If school is pain and exclusion and unseen, elegant forms of violence, how do you continue to love a parent who forces you to be there?  Gradually we stopped talking about school and then we just stopped talking. And a few months later she was gone.

Possibly the greatest crisis facing the education system in Saskatchewan is the abysmally low rates of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) graduation.  Steeves, Carr-Stewart, and Marshall (2011) put the rate of graduation among FNMI students in Saskatchewan at between 25-30%.  This compares to the graduation rate of between 70-80% for non-Indigenous students (p.25).  This is a significant and visible gap that cannot, and should not, easily be explained away.  On its own, this statistic is alarming.  However, when coupled with the significant growth projected for the Indigenous population in Saskatchewan, this statistic becomes a sign of a crisis that cannot be ignored.

“It don’t matter if you’re black or white”

I, like most teachers in Canada, am White [2] (Ryan, Pollock, & Antonelli, 2009). Despite increasing racial diversity in our general and student populations, Canada’s teaching force continues to remain disproportionately White. I grew up knowing in an abstract way that I was White, but understanding Whiteness mostly as an absence of colour. Being White was an indication of what I was not, rather than what I was. Growing up in Vancouver, racial diversity was noted but discounted as meaningless. Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” was the anthem of the day and we sang the lyrics believing fervently, willfully in colour-blindness. “I’m not going to spend my life being a color” we sang to each other. “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Now I understand that it matters quite a bit. I see now that the structures of White dominance have bestowed upon me benefits and advantages that my non-White friends have had to do without. A key piece of my identity and my positionality, is being White.

Further to this Whiteness, I am also a Settler, a beneficiary of the colonial system that has dispossessed and continues to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, lives and resources. Barker (2009) has defined Settlers as “most peoples who occupy lands previously stolen or in the process of being taken from their Indigenous inhabitants or who are otherwise members of the ‘Settler society,’ which is founded on co-opted lands and resources” (p.328). By this definition, I am a Settler. However, I am also a descendant of settlers in the more traditional sense of the word. My paternal grandmother came from England to Saskatchewan with her family in the early 1930s to homestead near Tisdale. My family was given free land in exchange for agreeing to clear it, most of which they did by hand. My grandmother’s family worked exceptionally hard and endured great adversity. Nonetheless, the free land they received has, over the past eight decades netted millions of dollars of farming profits and is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. My positionality as a Settler is an integral part of how I am Canadian and how I have come to see Canada.

I grew up in Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish territory, and now live in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on Treaty 4 land. Recognizing the historical background of land use and ownership in Canada is important because it disrupts the commonplace notion that Canada was built by peaceful and industrious European pioneers in an empty land. At the 2009 G20 Summit, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that Canada had “no history of colonialism” (Wherry, 2009). Governor General David Johnston in his Speech from the Throne in 2013, described Canada as a country built by pioneers who seized “the moment that history offered” and “forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed.” Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, described Canada as a country without “some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism” (Aivalis, 2016).  These statements are patently untrue. Canada has a long and enduring history of colonialism and this was no empty land. Acknowledging my place on this land, means acknowledging this history.

Canada has a long and enduring history of colonialism and this was no empty land

Southern Saskatchewan, where I now live, is the traditional territory of the Cree and the Saulteaux who signed Treaty 4 in 1874. This treaty history is not well understood by Canadians (Miller, 2009) and is often thought to have been a peaceful means of settling the prairies. As James Daschuk’s book (2013), Clearing the Plains, details in depth, settlement of the prairies was far from peaceful. In the latter part of the 19th century, First Nations across the Prairies and beyond were faced with starvation due to the decimation of the bison and the erosion of their traditional way of life, as well as widespread illness and death due to European diseases. It was under these conditions that the Cree and Saulteaux negotiated the sharing of their traditional lands in exchange for support and the development of a nation-to-nation or brother-to-brother relationship in perpetuity[3]. These treaties and the forming of this treaty relationship is the cornerstone of Canada’s development as a nation, and therefore I and everyone on this land, are Treaty People. Developing a treaty relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers like myself in a way that understands and recognizes the nation-to-nation, treaty-based status of this relationship is key component of being a Treaty Person.

Although my own extended family and I share a rather unambiguous White Settler identity, I married into a family deeply scarred by Canada’s colonial past and present. My husband’s White, biological family adopted three Saulteaux children in the early seventies as part of the “Sixties Scoop”.  Beginning in the 1960s and enduring well into the 1980s, the Canadian government apprehended Indigenous children and placed them with non-Indigenous families frequently obscuring the children’s heritage. This was a deliberate program of forced assimilation by the government, following on the heels of one hundred years of residential schools [4]. As fewer Indigenous children were being sent to residential schools, the child welfare system emerged “as the new method of colonialization” (Johnston, 1983, 24).

The wisdom at the time was to treat these ‘scooped up’ Indigenous children as White kids, the same as everyone else. One of my sisters-in-law did not know that she was adopted or Indigenous until she was in grade 4. There were no services, no support, no funding for these kids and these families. It did not go very well. Not one of the children adopted into my husband’s family graduated. They have had serious issues with the law and with addictions. All three children ran away from home at sixteen, in part to find their biological families. Now as adults, my Indigenous in-laws watch as the cycle repeats and many of their own children are apprehended by Social Services.  Hundreds of years of colonialism, of forced assimilation, of family dislocation and intergenerational trauma, of racism, all have come to bear.  Today the number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system is three times the number of children in residential schools at the height of their operation. (Blackstock, Prakash, Loxley & Wien, 2005).  In the spring of 2011, my husband and I joined this colonial carousel by taking in two of my Saulteaux sister-in-law’s daughters, to raise in our family.

Over the years we have pieced together some of the history of our blended family. We have learned that my adopted daughters’ biological grandmother, as well as many other relatives, went to the Gordon Residential School on the George Gordon Reserve. This was a school notorious for sexual abuse, a school that only closed its doors in 1996, the last federally run facility to do so. As we narrate our children’s story for them/with them, it is easy to call this school Ground Zero for the cycles of abuse, neglect and dysfunction that they have experienced and continue to experience. There is consistent evidence of the enduring links between familial residential school attendance and a range of health and social outcomes among the descendants of those who attended. (Bombay, Matheson, Anisman, 2014).  But that is too facile. In fact the school is a powerful symbol of the vicious colonial policies and practices that pre and post-date the school itself. Nevertheless, the power of schools and schooling cannot be understated.

The education system in Canada has a long history as a “tool[] of colonialism” (Cote-Meek, 2014, p.49).  The Indian Residential School System, besides methodically removing children from their families, identities and cultures, was a deliberate and highly calibrated system of abuse and neglect.  Despite the residential school system being well documented, many details from this era are only just coming to light due to court proceedings.  The use of a homemade electric chair at St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario and the multiple nutritional experiments conducted on malnourished Indigenous students (Mosby, 2013) are just a few chilling examples that have been revealed recently.  Nonetheless, for over a hundred years Indigenous peoples have experienced schooling literally as violence.

Galtung (1969) has defined violence as an extended concept that is present when “human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations,” (p.168). In this definition of violence, it is not only about bodily harm but a reduction in living capacity. Violence, in this case, is defined as that which causes a difference between what is and what could have been.

Galtung has argued that there are six important dimensions to violence. The most significant distinction, is whether or not there is a person who acts. This determines whether the violence is personal or structural. In the case of the Residential School System, the violence was both. It was both personal, in that persons were committing the violence, and structural, invisibly built into the social structure of Canada, denying Indigenous children their potential. While the personal violence of this system is over, the institutions closed, the perpetrators dead, or no longer in power, the structural violence that created the system, remains. Extremely low rates of FNMI graduation are just one telling marker of the structural colonial violence that continues to take place in our schools. Indigenous children clearly are not achieving their potential within this system. It is therefore, by Galtung’s definition, a violent system.

However, this violence in our school system is not only structural, that is, externally constructed and maintained, but also insidious, coercive and symbolic.  Bourdieu and Wacquant (in Scheper-Hughes & Bourgois [eds], 2003) have defined symbolic violence as the violence which “is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (p.272). This is a devious form of violence in which those who are harmed are coerced into accepting this harm as natural, the world as it is meant to be. A world where those who are dominated “contribute to their own domination by tacitly accepting the limits [that are] imposed” (p.341). Systematic violence is about socialization and hidden persuasion, where domination is justified by arbitrary biological and cultural markers. This system of violence imposes itself as self-evident and universal, coercing systematic self-depreciation within its victims. Systematic violence is a product of an “incessant and therefore historical labour of reproduction” (p.340) which begins with “early, prolonged experience of interactions informed by the structures of domination” (p.341)… otherwise known as public schooling.

Schools have been and continue to be “colonial projects” that aim to “suppress and eradicate Aboriginal peoples, including their ways of knowing and understanding” (Cote-Meek, 2014, p.52). Schools today are founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment, using ‘reason’ as a methodology, and favour written over oral, abstract over concrete, universal over local and timeless over specific, ways of knowing (Kerr, 2014). Indigenous ways of knowing are largely absent, dismissed as quaint reminders of an irrational and superstitious past. The Western modernist view of knowledge, on the other hand, has been able to dominate, in part, by “masquerading as universal knowledge and presenting itself as the god-like view of the truth” (Kerr, p.90). Schools present this modern knowledge as culturally neutral and universally applicable. Meanwhile, Indigenous perspectives are presented as “difficult knowledge through silencing or denying the context of colonial violence to Indigenous peoples and territories,” (Kerr, p.94, emphasis in original).

Beyond these “epistemic collisions” (Kerr, 2006, p. 84), and unquestioned colonial worldviews, schools are rife with other challenges. Through chronic underfunding, and the perpetuation of damaging myths and stereotypes the Canadian education system in many ways furthers the residential school project of forced assimilation.  No wonder then that the majority of Indigenous students decline to suffer through the entire program.

Even the most basic of things, such as the naming of schools, is heavily laden with our colonial history.  Jon Stewart (2015) of The Daily Show has called the naming of things “racial wallpaper” (4:01).  After white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, Jon Stewart talked about the racially charged history of Charleston that is celebrated through toponymy.  “In South Carolina, the roads that Black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep Black people from being able to drive freely on that road” (Stewart, 2015, 3:57).  Here in Moose Jaw, the school I work at is named after John Palliser who surveyed Southern Saskatchewan to make way for European settlers in the late 1800s. Other schools in the division are named after British royalty and English villages.  The deep history of Indigenous people on this land is rarely recognized or honoured. Instead we decorate our roads and our parks and our schools with colonial wallpaper and are perplexed that so few Indigenous students opt to stay in these colonial spaces long enough to graduate.

Instead we decorate our roads and our parks and our schools with colonial wallpaper and are perplexed that so few Indigenous students opt to stay in these colonial spaces long enough to graduate.

There is a long history of framing urban spaces as colonial or white spaces, a history that Razack (2000) detailed in her analysis of the murder of Pamela George. Newspaper records from the 19th century stated the importance of keeping “the Indians out of town” (p.100). And in fact this was the policy, with First Nations peoples being spatially contained to reserves, for the most part, until the 1950s. The Native Council of Canada in their statement to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, identified the “strong, sometimes racist perception that being Aboriginal and being urban are mutually exclusive,” (as cited in Razack, p.102). While constricting the movements of Indigenous people is no longer explicitly bound in law, the framing of urban and educational places as White colonial space continues (Schick, 2000). By naming institutions and infrastructure using colonial markers, we are explicitly designating who belongs in these spaces. It should come then as no surprise that this has created a crisis both in schools and in communities[5] at large.

I am a part of this crisis in education: as a mother to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, and as a White Settler teacher.  As a mother, like most, I would like for all of my children to graduate.  I am clearly more concerned, in this regard, with my Saulteaux daughters, for whom progress towards graduation is increasingly tenuous.  However, this crisis in education is not only about them; it equally affects my White children, for colonialism disfigures both the colonized and the colonizers (Johnson, 2011, p.107).  I want my White children to graduate too, but not as another generation of entitled and ignorant settler descendants, inheritors of our epistemologies of ignorance (Calderón, 2011).   Mills (1997) has defined this epistemology of ignorance as “localized and global cognitive dysfunctions … [which produce] the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made” (as cited in Tuana, 2004, p.195). The active production of ignorance in our school systems and in the wider community is a key component in the creation and maintenance of structures of oppression. I want neither my Indigenous nor my White children to continue to edify this system.

I want all my children to be engaged citizens of a better world.  Uncomfortably, as a teacher, I am left with sorting out the logistics.  It is much easier to want something in the abstract than it is to provide it concretely day in and day out within the four cinder-block walls of my classroom.  What does an ethical, anti-colonial classroom look like?  What should I be striving for?

A common prescription by Indigenous Elders is to “start where you are able and move as you should” (Ministry of Education, 2010, p.2). At a nation-wide level, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has finished their inquiry and published their reports. Many of the Final Report’s Calls to Action pertain to education and provide a clearly articulated starting place for re-imagining Indigenous-settler relations. Integrating Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms, respecting and honouring Treaty relationships, and developing age-appropriate curricula on residential schools are just a few of the many areas to which the Commission has drawn attention. Nationally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report has unequivocally identified areas in the education system in need of significant improvement. “It is precisely because education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal people, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation,” (Justice Murry Sinclair, chair of the TRC, 2014, p.7).

“It is precisely because education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal people, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation,” (Justice Murry Sinclair, chair of the TRC, 2014, p.7).

At the provincial level, in Saskatchewan, we have a framework for beginning this work.  We have a K-12 curriculum that specifically includes First Nations and Métis resources into curricular outcomes and indicators.  We also have a comprehensive Treaty Education curriculum that explores in great depth the historical and contemporary basis of our current Treaty relationship.  Furthermore, we have a provincial education goal of significantly improving First Nations and Métis graduation rates.  We have many places to start.

The perception, though, is that no one is starting. Couros et al. (2013) have described the adoption and implementation of the Treaty Education program as being “unhurried”, that there has been a “reluctance (or even resistance) to tak[ing] up the teaching of treaties” (p.547).  Tupper (2011) has called preservice teachers’ knowledge and understandings of treaties and the treaty relationship “distressingly limited” (p.40). In my own experience, the number of teachers and schools engaged meaningfully with the spirit and intent of Treaty Education are few and far between.

On top of a lack of content knowledge, many teachers raised within the rhetoric of official multiculturalism [6] refuse to deal with issues of race by arguing that they personally just don’t see race, that they just see people. This serves to reinforce the “theorized invisibility of race and racism, thereby limiting one’s ability to interrogate notions of privilege” (Solomona et al., 2005, p.150).  A recurring sentiment within the Canadian school system is that public education must be defended as a neutral multicultural space (St. Denis, 2011), a stance which effectively limits meaningful engagement with Indigenous content and perspectives. To put matters more starkly, St. Denis has argued that multiculturalism is a form of colonialism that works to undermine Indigenous sovereignty, in part, by positioning Indigenous peoples as one of many competing “minority” groups. Trying to incorporate FNMI content and perspectives while simultaneously holding a multicultural mindset, puts even the most well-meaning of teachers into an epistemological no man’s land.

Trying to incorporate FNMI content and perspectives while simultaneously holding a multicultural mindset, puts even the most well-meaning of teachers into an epistemological no man’s land.

I would argue though, that focusing on deficits rather than strengths is counterproductive.  We need to honour the complexity and enormity of this process.  Instead of studying all the ways that we continue to fail our Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, we need to focus on the teachers, schools, administrators, or school divisions, who are doing the messy work of trying to change our schooling system.  What I need as a classroom teacher, is examples of other teachers trying to do this work.  I want to read about their successes and their failures, and the insights they have gained along the way.  Currently, such research and narratives are relatively hard to come by although Tamara Smith’s (2014) work has begun a path forward. Smith has argued that the lack of teachers implementing treaty education in Saskatchewan is a Settler problem that is incumbent on Settlers to solve. My research aims to follow in Smith’s footsteps, to delve further into what it means to be a White Settler treaty person endeavouring to teach ethically on the Canadian prairies.

The purpose of this study is to use critical autoethnography to pursue the question of how I might work to create an ethical and anti-colonial classroom.  My research will look at the following questions: What does teaching in a time of reconciliation look like?  What might it mean for a White settler teacher to take up the TRC Calls to Action with primary students?

This critical authoethnography will explore what it looks like to challenge colonialism in an elementary classroom as a way to move towards reconciliation.  The focus will be on myself in my dual roles as both a White Settler educator as well as a parent to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.  I will examine and reflect on my lessons and my interactions with students, staff and family members as I work to link theory and practice, research as praxis.  I am both the narrator and the analyst in this research as I work to bring Critical Race and Anti-Colonial theories into my classroom and my life, to examine moments of tension and synergy, as well as moments of significant learning.  The aim of this work is to present a unique “on the ground” look at the practical implications of working towards reconciliation by turning theories into practice. This research aims to provoke critical reflection in myself as well as the intended primary audience of settler teachers like myself, to begin a dialogue that promotes reconciliation.

[1] In this work, whenever possible, individual Indigenous groups will be named. When a collective noun is required, ‘Indigenous’ will be used in accordance with the working definition of the UN Working Group of Indigenous Populations.  There are important   nuances in the terms we use.  The term ‘Indigenous’ includes the concepts of land reclamation and sovereignty.  However, it is noted that any collective noun is problematic given the vast diversity of Indigenous peoples and experiences.

[2] The terms ‘White’, ‘Settler’ and ‘Indigenous’ will all be capitalized in this work to differentiate these concepts as racial identities rather than common adjectives/nouns.

[3] For a more in depth look at the differences of understanding of contract and extinguishment of title, see Chapter 23, W is for Worldview.

[4] Residential schools were a network of residential or boarding schools in Canada designed for Indigenous children. They were funded by the government and administered by churches. The residential school policy was designed to remove children from the influence of their families and cultures, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian/European culture. There were residential schools that operated before Canadian confederation, however the system was significantly expanded and institutionalized after the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.

[5] The recent suicide crisis in Attawapiskat has many White settlers wondering why Indigenous people choose to stay on critically underfunded reserves, in these native spaces. Tristin Hopper in his article for the National Post, “Why Canadian white people have so much trouble understanding why somebody wouldn’t want to leave Attawapiskat” goes into this phenomenon in great depth. In addition to Hopper’s analysis, it is worth noting that the obvious alternative to living on reserves is trying to live in urban White space.

[6] A critique of multiculturalism is detailed in more depth in Chapter 9, ‘I is for Understanding Italians’.