No Clean White Sheet

  • Andrew Hunter (Author)
    It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at
  • Constance Backhouse (Editor), Cynthia E. Milton (Editor), Margaret Kovach (Editor) and Adele Perry (Editor)
    Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at

Reframing history as constructed by white people is a challenge met in these notable books. Both directly address the construction of knowledge itself as the ground of racial injustice, and the writers try hard to avoid committing new offenses of their own in their necessarily proprietary roles as scholars working from within academic frames of reference. Royally Wronged answers a 2017 call for papers by the Royal Society of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force. The Task Force requested studies addressing the Society’s and Canadian scholars’ historical complicity in producing “disastrous interactions” (6) between white settlers and Indigenous peoples. Some of the fourteen interdisciplinary essays in the volume focus on the origins of the RSC and the influence of Duncan Campbell Scott, longtime Society member and president from 1921-1932, creator of ignominious policies governing Canadian residential schools; others consider how the RSC has shaped Canadian scholarship in general. Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors speak from a range of disciplinary perspectives including history, law, anthropology, archaeology, political science, education, social sciences and literature. They assess the role of the RSC in perpetuating rather than challenging academic mindsets that fostered limited and limiting views of Indigenous reality, experience, and knowledge.


Constance Backhouse and Carole Gerson in their opening arguments establish the scope of the volume and emphasize the odd trajectory of Duncan Campbell Scott’s career. Groomed by the Society for each of the positions he eventually held within it, he was promoted through their ranks based primarily on personality and social connections, despite his mediocrity as a poet and scholar. Outshone especially in the early years by more accomplished academics and writers comprising the majority of RSC membership, Scott nevertheless gradually garnered immense power in the organization that, in turn, enhanced his status as the “principal architect” of Indigenous policy. Like many of his colleagues who saw themselves as supporters of Indigenous people, Scott espoused racialized conceptions of them ranging from condescendingly appreciative to openly unsympathetic. Backhouse and others contend that Scott’s obliviousness to systemic racism cannot be excused as simply the common blindness of his era. Shedding fascinating light on his conscious rejection of views opposing his own is Gerson’s account of Scott’s grudging preoccupation with the works of celebrated Mohawk poet, Pauline Johnson. By analyzing their works in tandem over time, Gerson reveals how Scott both appropriated and repudiated Johnson’s perspectives in an ongoing, implied dialogue of which Johnson herself remained unaware. Further evidence of how Scott’s and other RSC members’ publications perpetuated the hierarchical relationship of white and Indigenous societies comes from John Reid and Cynthia Milton. As Reid contends, the weight of the RSC’s authority amplified the voices of white Canadian writers and intellectuals promoting racist positions; Milton examines the RSC’s annual Proceedings and Transactions to underscore the decidedly British mindset of contributors, partly unable and partly unwilling to acknowledge Indigenous ways of knowing.


Essays in Royally Wronged by legal scholars, including Jane Bailey and Joanna R. Quinn, are especially insightful in showing how Anglocentric and Indigenous epistemologies conflicted, resulting in colonial devaluation of the latter. The assumed superiority of written, codified law (such as treaties and contracts) over orally preserved and transmitted cultural traditions constitutes “structural violence” (Quinn) and “cognitive imperialism” (Bailey) that effectively erase social mores governing Indigenous practices, including but not limited to education and land-management. These and other contributors to Royally Wronged who address Canadian jurisprudence remind readers that the RSC’s membership remains mostly white today, and that an essential task for the future is inclusion of Indigenous people, and full recognition of how they have contributed to the formation of a uniquely Canadian society.


Andrew Hunter in It Was Dark There All the Time likewise means to avoid cognitive imperialism, or what he terms “extractive” history that treats its subjects as objects to be torn from their contexts, relocated, preserved, studied like artifacts in a museum, and ultimately used to promote the agendas of the extractors. He develops a variety of rhetorical techniques for mitigating any implied ownership of his human subject, the enslaved woman named Sophia Burthen Pooley. His narrative is an imaginative blend of historical monograph and personal storytelling. As he tells Sophia’s story, he also tells his own story of physically retracing the path of her journey as a captive slave child, a journey that effectively “erased” her life. He includes frequent metacommentary on the challenges that such a recovery effort poses, thus forcing us to see how his project is everywhere complicated by his own whiteness. Especially effective is an epistolary strategy of directly addressing Sophia in conversational letters to her as he searches for clues to how she lived. Letters and metacommentary evoke Sophia’s individuality and humanity, and sustain both author’s and audience’s awareness of the effects of whiteness not only on writing, but also on reading history.


Hunter’s primary guide to recovering Sophia’s story is a single written statement in her own words (included in a published interview with her by Benjamin Drew in 1856). Quoted passages from this statement are reproduced in handwriting-font throughout Hunter’s text, a successful means, along with his fictive letters to her, of avoiding “extraction” and instead interjecting her voice. Also figuring among Hunter’s narrative strategies is a poetical device—brief etymological meditations. One of these focuses, for instance, on the implications of her full name, Sophia Burthen (her name at birth and, thus, her slave name) Pooley (her married name and free name). “Sophia” means “divine wisdom” and “beauty”; “Burthen” is an early form of the word, “burden,” and connotes the slavery that diminished her, while “Pooley” suggests water and “riparian” flow, or freedom. Through such techniques he suggests the human complexity usually bscured in historical accounts of slaves. Hunter alerts us many times to the polysemous and fluid indeterminacy of language that accounts for the uncertainty of knowledge captured and preserved in historical texts like Hunter’s own, and like Benjamin Drew’s that shadows it. With his extensive background as a museum curator, Hunter understands the power invested in those who define and control what counts as knowledge within a culture. He sees Drew much as he sees himself, as a curator with “priestly” control over what survives as Sophia’s story. In writing a history, Hunter sets out to disrupt the kind of power his task assumes. He looks for ways at least figuratively to free her, to loosen the bounds of Drew’s and his authority, to reduce the “burden” or weight of it. Dialoguing with Drew’s account of Sophia, and emphasizing the semiotic mastery over her that Drew exerted, Hunter attempts the sort of historical reframing requested by contributors to Backhouse’s volume.


Like most travellers, Hunter takes some side trips while retracing Sophia’s passage. He visits art museums where he views famous paintings with embedded narratives demanding our attention, despite colonialist efforts to suppress their often obvious implications. Fascinating, for instance, are the long-standing, evasive interpretations of Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1899) that dismiss, understate or ignore its obvious racial content. The man depicted in the boat is Black, and both the physical appearance of this man and a few “stocks of sugar cane” lying near him (247) strongly suggest he is an escapee from a sugar plantation; he is caught in the Gulf Stream far offshore and unlikely to survive. Nevertheless, standard interpretations of the painting, dodging Blackness and embarrassing colonial history, claim the painting addresses far less specific, symbolic issues such as Winslow’s concern with his own mortality. Throughout the text, Hunter analyzes the ostensible cultural meanings of other nineteenth-century artworks by Americans and Europeans, as well as Canadians, with regard to this “controlled presence of Blackness.” Such interpretive evasions reinforce Hunter’s claim, shared by the contributors to Royally Wronged, that attempts to obscure historical truths are often more conscious than unconscious collective choices, not excusable as innocent mistakes of people blind to the racism of their era. In Hunter’s words, such sanitized history told on “a clean white sheet” will always be “virulent and toxic.”

This review “No Clean White Sheet” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 4 Jul. 2023. Web.

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