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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2010

Reliving the ‘Indian Problem’ at First Nations University

By Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber
Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized in June 2008 to the tens of thousands of former students of the residential schools system. “We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions — that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this,” he said.

“There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.”

Last month, faculty of the First Nations University of Canada gathered to showcase the academic ex­cellence of the school. If anything, this place, this school, provides a way of recovering from past educational policies that the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs im­posed on First Nations communities throughout the history of this country.

As a professor in the English department, I teach First Nations and Métis poetry, fiction and drama. One of the main issues we face is the history of the English language itself — and the most critical concern to begin with is that English was the language of the colonizer. But in the words of Emma La­Roc­que, English is now a tool of decolonization, a universal language of resistance.

That’s why it is so important that we teach our students to read, write and think critically about literature, as well as all the other texts we encounter every day. In the English department, we also teach creative writing, because free artistic expres­sion is essential to the human spirit.

In addition to First Nations and Métis literatures, we also look at English Canadian works that attempt to represent Aboriginal concerns, because here we can examine many of the attitudes toward First Nations and Métis peoples that have manifested throughout Canadian history.

The most pressing concern for us today is that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is sitting by while our school struggles to survive. The department’s minister appears to be on a mission. Chuck Strahl told reporters earlier this year about our school: “What is not clear to us, and is not completely evident, is whether all of the planned reforms that are being talked about are going to happen. They’ve got other issues that so far have not been addressed … and a bunch of other academic problems.” (CBC News, 31 March 2010)

He also said “Our government remains committed to helping first nations students access and complete their education — no matter what university they choose to attend.” (Globe and Mail, 18 Feb. 2010)

Apparently Strahl believes he knows best how to educate our students — that he has their best interests in mind. We’ve seen proud men like Strahl before — Ottawa men, who claim to know what is in our and our students’ best interests.

There is an early English Canadian writer who is of particular interest to our current situation — Duncan Campbell Scott. Among other things, Scott was a member of a group known as the “Confederation poets” and is considered to be a major figure in early English Canadian literature. But Scott was also deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, a department he had served since joining the federal civil service in 1879.

During his time in office, Scott defined the role of the minister and the department’s policy toward Indian education for subsequent gen­erations. Most notably, he was a strong proponent of Canada’s Residential Schools.

To read some of his more infamous and disturbing statements — in 1920, Scott wrote: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. (…) 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 question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” This essentially sums up Scott’s Indian educational policy.

And in 1910, Scott also wrote, referring to the high death rate of children in residential schools, “this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Today, history does not look favourably on Scott. Yet those who attempt to redeem him point to his achievements in poetry. Scott did indeed make a major contribution to early English Canadian poetry, but there are some poems that reveal his patronizing attitudes towards First Nations people, name­ly his works known as “Indian poems.”

In one entitled “The Onondaga Madonna” (1898), Scott romanticizes the loss of Native cultures. He describes a Native woman as a “tragic savage” — heroic but ultimately doomed — doomed because Scott depicts her as resisting the transition from her traditions into Canadian society: “Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains / Of feuds.” The stain of blood on her lips is a symbol of resistance to the assi­milation of her identity into Scott’s colonial gaze. But Scott depicts her as already in the process of being assimilated — he describes the child she holds as “the latest promise of her nation’s doom.”

It is here Scott envisions his co­lonial policy, as he attempts to redeem mother and child, by depicting them being converted to Christianity — with the figure of the mother and child posing, he gives shape to the archetype of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. However, the Indian mother still does not passively accept her suffering with humility: her “rebel lips” still seek resistance, and this is further passed on to her child, who “draws his heavy brows and will not rest” — the child will presumably continue to resist assimilation.

Because of this, Scott intimates that the Natives are “doomed” because they will not willingly assimilate to the culture of English Canada.

Even with this brief analysis, one can see how this poem is a classic instance of the English Canadian author, or authority, giving voice to First Nations concerns — to those whom Scott represents as dying. In Scott’s view, Indians have everything to gain from assimilating.

The attempt by the Department of Indian Affairs to eliminate the so-called Indian problem is still on-going. We are living it today. Right now. Ottawa politicians still cast their gaze across the country and claim to know what is best for Indian education.

Strahl has continually claimed that his primary concern is the education of First Nations students, and that he’ll ensure they receive the same education as other Canadians. He sounds noble to some, but, at root, his actions are really a continuation of hundreds of years of colonial policy — an educational policy that has failed again and again and again throughout our history.

The First Nations University of Canada is, among many things, a response to the Department of Indian Affairs’ educational policy. The 34 years of the university have been an interruption in that policy. But you don’t just turn around hundreds of years of colonial practices in 34 years — the school must keep going — especially if the government’s apology is not to ring hollow. Join us on our journey.

The Prime Minister’s apology was important, but the substance of it is not only to be judged in the government’s words, but by action. Strahl is playing a game with our futures. Indian and Northern Affairs has us in a corner, waiting to reassert the department’s traditional educational policy. Is this the legacy Strahl wishes to leave in this post-apology era? Is this the historic role of the head of Indian Affairs reasserting itself in our time?

Duncan Campbell Scott is considered to be a major literary figure, but because of his actions and policies as head of Indian Affairs, history now looks on him as one of the most regrettable Canadians of our colonial past.

In this new era, what legacy will Strahl leave behind? How will history remember this minister?

Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber is as assistant professor of English at First Nations University of Canada.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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