There is a growing body of literature — novels, memoirs, poetry, graphic novels, picture books — through which Indigenous writers are giving voice and agency to the experiences and histories of Indian residential schooling in Canada.
The ethical teaching of residential school narratives can be thought of as a relational process that requires consultation and accountability.
Rather than view residential school literature as primarily concerned with past history, I want to advocate for the importance of teaching these narratives as stories that probe our colonial present and the possibility of a more just future.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper, in his 2008 apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential schools system, put residential schooling firmly in the past by calling it a “sad chapter in our history.” This narrative of pastness allowed Harper to swagger to the aspirational conclusion that “there is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail.”
The policies of assimilation that governed the schools in the past, however, remain in operation today, although in different forms. Gitksan professor Cindy Blackstock, for example, asks of residential schools: “Did they really close or just morph into child welfare?”
And Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmater suggests that “the abuse did not end with the closing of the last residential school in 1996. Today, there are more Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents and placed into foster care than at the height of the residential school era.”
Responding through story
Following the release in 2015 of 94 Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, educators across the country — most of whom are not Indigenous — were tasked with the urgent imperative to bring the history and legacies of residential schooling into the classroom. Many teachers chose to respond through story by teaching residential school literature.
To teach residential school literature (fiction or memoir) is to bring deeply felt, personal stories of capture, imprisonment and cultural erasure into largely non-Indigenous classrooms.
In this context, it’s important to ask:
How can we teach residential school literature in culturally responsive ways?
What do we owe the survivors of residential schooling who have gifted their stories to us?
How do we bring our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits into dialogue with genocide?
In a nutshell, it’s all about relationships: between the reader and the story being told, and between the reader and the Indigenous writers and communities to which we are all accountable.
Building accountability into the practice of reading and teaching these often intensely personal and traumatic stories can be fostered through consultation and engagement with Indigenous communities.
Accountability also requires that we immerse ourselves fully in the material on its own sovereign terms and in all of its depth and complexity. We need to be ethical witnesses, and we need to ask what the stories teach us about our present.
My students created and contributed to a Facebook page, Indian Residential Schools in Canada: Literature, Art, Media over the past years. This page is an example of how to engage students in the material in meaningful ways that promote an ongoing dialogue about truth, reconciliation and colonialism in Canada.
This dialogue is critical, and key to it is that we keep thinking and reading about residential schools in the present day and for the future. These are in many ways stories of our time. It’s the guise that has changed. And without radical decolonization in this country, these are stories of our future.
‘The Marrow Thieves’
Last February, one day after the acquittal of Gerald Stanley for the murder of Colten Boushie, Métis writer and author of The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline, tweeted:
“I wrote a book about Indigenous people being considered not human, being considered ‘things’ at the hands of a colonial Canada. I thought I was writing about a potential future. #justiceforcolten #themarrowthieves @canadareads.”
The Marrow Thieves is a young-adult novel set forty years into the future. In the wake of environmental disaster, Indigenous peoples are being captured and sent to residential schools. They are being hunted and killed for their bone marrow, which allows non-Indigenous people, who have all lost their ability to dream, to dream again and, thus, to imagine again.
Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt asks, “What is an NDN if not the ceiling of a country’s political imagination?” In The Marrow Thieves, the political ceiling is high.
The limit of the colonial imagination is the cannibalistic harvesting of Indigenous bodies to support non-Indigenous nation-state survival.
There is an inevitability to the narrative arc of the novel that suggests that it is as realistic to imagine a future of ecological devastation as it is to imagine a future of residential schools — a future where Indigenous peoples continue to be hunted down, like Colten Boushie, because they are considered somehow less than human by colonial Canada.
‘Seven Fallen Feathers’
Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers focuses on seven Indigenous young people who went missing and ultimately died in Thunder Bay, Ont.
An inquest into the seven youths’ deaths found that First Nations people in Thunder Bay “are often treated as less than worthy victims” and exposed systemic problems surrounding supports for the youth and responses to their deaths.
A civilian police review body found in December 2018 that police failed to adequately investigate the deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, including four youths discussed in Talaga’s book, at least in part because of racist attitudes and stereotyping.
The seven fallen feathers were all from communities in northern Ontario. Because of the refusal of the government to adequately fund on-reserve education, Indigenous young people are frequently unable to complete a high-school education in their communities. They must go south, far from their homes, to what is often a hostile and culturally unfamiliar place.
Remember that Thunder Bay is where a young white man, Brayden Bushby, stands accused of second degree murder for allegedly throwing a metal trailer hitch from a moving vehicle at an Indigenous woman, Barbara Kentner, who was simply walking by. She was hospitalized and died from her injuries about six months after being attacked.
The violent deaths of Barbara Kentner and Colten Boushie remind us that in present-day Canada, it’s threatening and even perilous for Indigenous people to walk around.
Talaga’s book reveals the many comparisons between students from remote Northern reserves boarding and attending school in Thunder Bay — far from their communities, far from their families, far from their languages and far from their cultural traditions — and the Indian residential school system.
Talaga thus draws important connections to the assimilative system that stole generations of children to obliterate any traces of their identities as self-determining and self-sustaining peoples with a wealth of languages, knowledge systems and cultural traditions.
Into the future
Dimaline’s and Talaga’s books teach us that versions of residential schooling exist not only in the present, but also in the future if Canada does not take seriously and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Memoirs and fictions about residential school experiences and legacies are thus necessary readings in neo-colonial Canada. Teaching and reading residential school literature foster richer understandings of present and future colonialisms.
To understand the colonial past is to open the door to understanding the colonial present and future. This understanding is a crucial part of the pathway to real change.
If there are different kinds of love, then there are different kinds of novels too — and Megan Gail Coles’s Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, shortlisted for CBC’s annual battle of books, Canada Reads 2020, is the kind that’s best read as a tough-love pre-Valentine warning.
It’s just not a feel-good, heart-warming, Eat, Pray, Love kind of book, the type some reach for when in need of romantic inspiration.
Structured around three courses served, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day at a restaurant in St. John’s, N.L., this book is divided into three acts, during which time it introduces — then makes plain the logic of connection between — several characters. The book then shows how their lives slowly and painfully unravel throughout the day.
If you bear in mind that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival Lupercalia, when women were paired off with men by way of a lottery, you will be closer to the mark in terms of what Coles’s novel is about and what it attempts to achieve.
In my research, I’ve examined how public institutions and regulatory bodies approached the archival materials of different women writers in Canada: E. Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule and M. NourbeSe Philip, as examples. Their interactions show how early 20th-century women’s voices were often suppressed because of sexist, racist or heteronormative tendencies, and their narratives susceptible to disappearing.
And because, to be frank, it is often uncomfortable to hear what women’s lives have to say.
Coles’s extraordinary debut novel, however, moves well past discomfort, tentative attempts at self-scrutiny and accountability, and calls for forgiveness. Forget discomfort: depending on how you identify and on your experiences, this novel could elicit either deep mortification or an invigorating anger that blazes, at moments, into real rage.
Before I explain the logic for my own emotional response, allow me also to add that this novel, a 2019 Scotiabank Giller finalist, is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who thinks their heart (or moral courage) is feeble should probably move along. Go on, find an Elizabeth Gilbert book to curl up with instead.
Or train your heart to be prepared for the emotional wreckage.
The novel’s narrative shifts from one point of view to another, revealing intersections between characters and carefully mapping the place, its social networks and divides, manifested in class, urban-rural and racialized identities that converge and then clash in the restaurant’s highly charged atmosphere.
In its evocations of Newfoundland, Coles has located herself among a vibrant tradition of writers, including Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Donna Morrissey. Each of these writers takes on the people and sense of place in unique ways, and Coles adds a dazzling new voice.
The conflict is set against a blizzard — a nod to the St. John’s climate, but also a form of pathetic fallacy, mirroring the internal strife of several characters. Their growing bitterness and trauma mean they make decisions, usually bad ones, that give rise to the novel’s mounting tensions.
The novel opens with the warning that “this might hurt a little” (thank you, Megan), but this is polite understatement. The first few pages belie the warning and read as deliciously irreverent, as if someone pushed the Maritimes’ Anne of Green Gables into a mud puddle.
Increasingly, however, the tone shifts, ultimately transforming into a thorny, visceral, unrelenting narrative, somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s writing — one that does not shirk from disclosing the brutal realities of what it means to be a vulnerable woman in contemporary western society.
Being a “vulnerable woman” in this book is a redundancy, since it really is a question of degree; however, there are women who are more vulnerable and suffer more than others.
Take Iris, the central female character. She works at the restaurant to overcome obstacles, particularly financial ones, that prevent her from pursuing her studies as an artist — but those obstacles also include familial traumas. Mulling over scientific data about “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or “ACES,” she dryly notes that she “has a pocket full” of them and later that the existing moment is “the worst hand she has ever been dealt.”
That “pocket full” does not portend a good outcome; rather, she is “snarled” by John Fisher, the chef and her boss, a predator who, “like an angry rival fisher,” “reels” her in “hand over fist over hand over fist.” His apparent emotional offerings are a pretence, just out of reach of Iris’s grasping hands.“
Coles’ compassion and scathing judgement often vie for centre stage, never quite cancelling the other out. You may wish, for example, to judge George, whose class, racialized white privilege and protective father shield her (yes, her) from those who prey on the vulnerabilities of women like Iris, and whose selfish, self-absorbed tendencies are less than charming.
But the moment you may feel tempted to judge her too far — and she does warrant some — Coles reminds you that George too wrestles with being identified as a “pathetic childless woman” who does “the backbreaking emotional labour of two humans:” her own and her husband’s, incidentally a member of the metaphorical “local coward gun club” to which the title alludes.
These characters may be flawed, but the writing is not. The polyphony of voices is animated and remarkable. The prose is fresh, street-smart and savvy — taking clichés and even mashing these back into proper service as poetry.
The narrative is timely, in view of the recent debacles and critical conversations that have surfaced in relation to the #MeToo movement, what it means to #BelieveWomen or those that inform the field of CanLit.
As an example, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins addresses the controversies that have animated the literary scene, and tackles gritty issues like rape culture and forms of domination and exploitation. Increasingly, we are all being invited to consider the responsibilities and connections we need to assume in the face of disclosures women make about their life stories.
One character, Olive, a young Indigenous woman, is directly asked at the novel’s outset: “So who are your relations?” Even as she comes to embody the resilience of women — their agency in times of chaos — the novel suggests readers consider that question, over and over again.
The Local Coward Gun Club fearlessly counters assumptions about sex, gender, class and racialized privilege about intersectional narratives, and demands that we look full in the face at the ways and number of times women and others have been injured; the number of times they have been disavowed when they have asked for help; the number of times they have been ignored, victimized or blamed instead of being supported.
The novel will demand that you, the reader, be accountable.