Canada’s residential school history includes state-sanctioned violence

Indigenous feathers
Karen Bridget Murray
Karen Bridget Murray

Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald and, to a lesser extent, Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs (1913-32), have become highly contentious figures in recent debates about Canada’s residential school history. In this context, an article by Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Karen Bridget Murray is particularly timely. In this paper, she successfully challenges some of the received knowledge about residential schools and draws this discussion into the present day.

Published by Cambridge University Press’ Canadian Journal of Political Science (2017), Murray’s paper, “The Violence Within: Canadian Modern Statehood and the Pan-territorial Ideal,” illustrates how the design and pursuit of a residential school system involved settler-colonial political efforts – including with violence – to secure recognition of Canada as a modern state.

In fact, Murray explained, “Canada envisioned, forged and secured [the] residential school system … with an express understanding that ‘Indian’ education could be used as a vector of violence to control Indigenous Peoples and their lands.”

This paper argues that state-sanctioned violence was part of the system’s operations from day one
This paper argues that state-sanctioned violence was part of the system’s operations from day one

Murray undertook this research with funding from York University and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Writing the article was a focus of her time as the Killam Visiting Professor in Canadian Studies at Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts (2016).

Murray asks new questions about residential school history

Murray’s work greatly adds to existing literature because it raises key questions about the residential school system that have never been considered to date, such as:

  • What was the significance of the “pan-territorial” – that is, the geographically “national” – character of the residential school system?
  • What was the context for the pursuit of a territorially universal ideal for the residential school system?
  • What was the relationship between Canada’s quest for independence from Britain and the second wave of residential school system expansion?

Drawing upon a vast range of documents, Murray makes three, interconnected arguments:

Argument 1:  The potential for state-sanctioned violence was etched into Macdonald’s National Policy
John A. Macdonald. Library and Archives Canada
John A. Macdonald. Library and Archives Canada

The possibility for residential schools to be harnessed as milieus of violence against Indigenous Peoples was embedded in the residential school system’s objectives. This was clear in how Macdonald’s 1878 National Policy intersected with the ideal and pursuit of creating a universal residential school system. This violent logic persisted at least into the 1930s, which saw the Dominion of Canada use Indigenous children at schools as political pawns to exert control over Indigenous Peoples and their lands.

Argument 2: The residential school system was linked to Canada’s hope of being recognized as a modern state on the world stage

The residential school system’s second wave of development, after World War I, was set within a context where Canada hoped to gain constitutional independence from Britain. This, at a time when modern statehood was being defined on the world stage as governing a national territory over a homogeneous people by consent. In this, Indigenous Peoples’ resistance to encroachments on their territories disrupted Canada’s claims to modern statehood. Murray argues that conventional accounts of Canada’s constitutional history have downplayed or ignored this long-standing resistance of Indigenous Peoples and how the residential school system figured in this history.

Argument 3: The schools were mechanisms used in efforts to crush Indigenous Peoples’ resistance
Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Nova Scotia (1929). Library and Archives Canada

Paying specific attention to the establishment of the eastern-most school, the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, Murray argues that the residential school system was harnessed as a field of coercion through which Canada sought to lay claim to Mi’kmaw lands. This, at a time when intense Indigenous Peoples’ resistance challenged an image of Canada as governing a homogeneous people by consent.

Murray proves that Canadian officials were complicit in violence

Murray brings to light how the highest offices of authority were not only aware of violence running through the residential school system, but also willfully allowed this violence to persist.

“Authorities up to the Prime Minister’s Office were complicit in unspeakable cruelties against children – turning blind eyes, denying facts, burying evidence, silencing whistleblowers, withholding medical treatment and refusing justice,” Murray said.

While in academic circles there has been a great deal of attention paid to Duncan Campbell Scott, Murray shows how Scott’s successor, Harold McGill (hand-picked by the 11th prime minister, R. B. Bennett) was also a key figure in Canada’s troubled past.

McGill expressed overtly racist views towards Indigenous Peoples, whom he referred to as “indigent, immoral,” “arrogant parasites,” an “idle, worthless lot … educated, medicated and nourished at the people’s expense.” He, like Bennett, sanctioned actions that denied protection to children while refusing care to allay long-term effects of neglect and abuse.

Canada must confront this violent history as part of its discussions about the meaning and practice of “reconciliation”

Murray argues that state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous Peoples needs to be given paramount attention in debates over the meaning and practice of reconciliation. She writes that Canada’s violence towards Indigenous Peoples in the past “endures in the present because it is internal to the Canadian modern state. This is the quintessential ‘Canadian problem,’ ” she concludes. “People have and do benefit from this violence. Failing to reckon with it, they remain complicit in it: the violence within.”

To read the article, visit the website. To learn more about Murray, visit her faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,