Anticolonial Pedagogies

Reviewed by Christina Turner

In recent years, scholars of pedagogy have recognized the extent to which Canadian school curricula perpetuate colonial attitudes, and have sought to address this with texts that dismantle Canada’s teleological historical mythos. Although this work is by no means complete yet, three new texts provide differential strategies about how to bring both Indigenous knowledge and Canada’s colonial history into the classroom.

Indians Don’t Cry is a collection of short stories and poems by Anishinaabe author George Kenny. The 2014 edition is republished under the University of Manitoba’s “First Voices, First Texts” imprint and includes a side-by-side translation of the original English version into Anishinaabemowin by Patricia M. Ningewance, and an afterword by the late scholar Renate Eigenbrod. The short pieces within cover a diverse range of themes. In “Lost Friendship,” in which a Red Lake missionary’s friend is murdered, sensory details proliferate as the story builds to a climax so that the “sun filtering through the pale yellow curtains,” and the “brewed air of fresh coffee” uncannily foreshadow the horrific news Marianne is about to receive. “On the Shooting of a Beaver” collapses the physical violence of hunting in to the epistemological violence of photography, and “How He Served” presents an intimately poetic portrait of the daily and lifelong rhythms of domesticity.

In her translator’s note Ningewance notes the difficult task of translating English into Anishinaabemowin because of the distinct values inherent to each language. However, Ningewance also stresses that Kenny’s work already embodies Anishinaabe ethics, as in “Track Star,” when Leslie, the protagonist, explicitly characterizes his act of running as something he does for his family and community at home. The fact that the Anishinaabemowin translation appears alongside the English original means that readers can track how words are translated and sentences constructed in each language, so Kenny’s collection can be employed in the classroom both as a tool for Anishinaabemowin language learners as well as for students of literature.

Several pieces in Indians Don’t Cry, including the titular story, stress the intergenerational psychological impacts of residential schools on Indigenous communities. Chris Benjamin similarly emphasizes these impacts in Indian School Road, a history of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, the only residential school in the Maritimes (open from 1930-1967). In contrast to earlier academic works which sought to present comprehensive histories of the entire Indian Residential School (IRS) system, in zeroing in on a single school Benjamin’s text is able to draw salient conclusions about the way assimilation policy played out in Canada’s easternmost provinces. Early missionaries on the Atlantic seaboard debated issues that their nineteenth-century successors in Indian Affairs would, ironically, dismiss, such as whether to teach children in English or Mi’kmaw or whether it was ethical to separate children from their families. Written on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Indian School Road has the advantage of historical perspective that earlier accounts lack. The book even addresses the 2013 study on nutritional experiments that went on in the schools, as Shubenacadie was one of the study’s sites.

Benjamin’s prose is consistently accessible, making this a useful text for a high school or undergraduate classroom. Stylistically, his writing occasionally exhibits fragmentary colloquialisms that fall flat against the otherwise measured narrative pacing. In his introduction, Benjamin outlines his methodology and explains that he did not interview survivors first-hand because, following Paulette Regan, he did not want to force survivors to relive trauma. As readers, we must respect this decision. Benjamin also outlines the restrictions on archival material about Shubenacadie that hampered his research. These two limitations combined mean that white voices are (unavoidably or unintentionally) privileged throughout much of the narrative—there seems to be a wealth of material from the school’s staff and Indian Affairs employees, and while the voices of the Mi’kmaq who attended the school are still present, they are circumscribed in comparison and generally come from a small number of sources (Isabelle Knockwood and Rita Joe’s memoirs are frequently cited). The final chapters, which contain testimony from the 2011 TRC event in Halifax, are exceptions. Indian School Road nevertheless manages to strike a difficult balance between articulating the culture of corruption and incompetence that characterized the IRS system in general and Shubenacadie in particular, while stressing the culpability of those who neglected and abused its wards for decades.

Keith D. Smith’s Strange Visitors is an ambitious intervention in the pedagogy of Canadian post-Confederation history. This textbook outlines significant moments in Indigenous-settler relations from the inception of the Indian Act. Smith introduces the text with instructions for students on how to read “against the grain.” Each chapter covers a historical area, from treaties to residential schools, and begins with a short introduction and questions for discussion before proceeding on to documents that highlight the central debates and issues of the topic in question. Rather than present an overarching narrative of Canadian history, Smith’s selections instead show the disparities between settler and Indigenous perspectives and reveal the inconsistencies that have plagued colonial policymaking since the nineteenth century. The gathering of so many key documents in one text carries rich pedagogical potential. For instance, students can now read Duncan Campbell Scott’s now oft-quoted claim about getting rid of the “Indian problem” in the context of the 1920 Special Committee meeting in which it was actually spoken.

Strange Visitors is an expansive text and Smith’s selections are, for the most part, judiciously chosen. However, some key topic areas are unmentioned or underexplored. There is no mention of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. As well, Smith elects to focus on the 1995 conflict at Ipperwash rather than the Oka crisis. And although there is a chapter about landmark court cases, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, the 1997 case that permitted the inclusion of oral testimony in legal proceedings, is absent from it. While these texts all share similar themes, pedagogically they do different things. The new edition of Kenny’s work showcases his poetic craft while presenting Anishinaabemowin and English on an equal plane. Benjamin offers a previously unexplored regional history while Smith’s work provides students of all backgrounds tools with which to critically explore the middle and recent Canadian historical past.

This review “Anticolonial Pedagogies” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 122-23.

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