History professors at the University of New Brunswick are offering their research skills to Indigenous people looking for information about ancestors or seeking land claims, saying First Nations remain under threat from Canada’s “imperialist and genocidal policies.”
In a recent message on the history department’s official Facebook page, faculty members at the university’s Fredericton campus began by expressing their condolences to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia, which recently discovered what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at the former residential school site in Kamloops.
The professors say that grim event motivated them to reach out to the Indigenous community and offer free help with archival and genealogical research.
“We also have networks of other historians that we have access to,” Prof. Angela Tozer, who specializes in modern Canadian history and settler colonialism, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s really about breaking down barriers so that individuals would feel comfortable with coming to us to ask for help.”
She said some Indigenous people have already come forward to seek assistance. She declined to release details, citing privacy concerns.
The professors’ statement goes on to address what they say is the role Canadian historians have played in “obscuring” the history of colonialism.
“Canadian history as a discipline often perpetuates nationalist ideologies that have made genocidal policies, such as the incarceration of Indigenous children in residential schools, possible through the creation of narratives that defend the righteousness of the Canadian settler state,” the statement says.
“We call on every Canadian historian to understand how they have contributed to genocidal policies and to reject provincial curricula that deny and downplay the histories of settler colonialism and residential schools and day schools.”
Tozer said the strong language reflects the fact that in the past 10 years or so, there has been a change in how historians approach their discipline.
“I can say with some confidence that historians across Canada would probably agree with the (Facebook) statement,” she said.
Historians have come to appreciate that the relatively new field of settler colonial studies has brought into sharp focus how states such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia were shaped by policies that subjugated Indigenous people, the professor added.
“It’s understanding that …. for Indigenous people, their lands, water and living spaces were appropriated from them by the state,” Tozer said, adding that the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 also played a role in illustrating how the residential school system was devoted to “cultural genocide.”
Erin Morton, a professor of visual culture with expertise in Canadian art and settler colonialism at the University of New Brunswick, said those who work in higher learning have a responsibility to ensure their discipline evolves.
“Speaking from my own position as a white settler scholar, I see myself as deeply complicit and deeply responsible for undoing some of that colonial harm,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
Tozer said Canada’s residential school system may be gone, but its policies linger for Indigenous children who remain overrepresented in the child welfare system.
The first government-funded, church-run residential schools opened in the 1870s, and the last one closed outside Regina in 1996.
In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended the schools. For those Indigenous families who resisted the system, children were forcibly taken away by the RCMP. The 130 schools became infamous as places where many students suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
They were also known for overcrowding, poor sanitation, unhealthy food and menial labour. Harsh punishment was meted out for those students who spoke their native language or took part in traditional rituals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2021.