In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were uncovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Colombia, some being as young as three years old. This is but one of several burial sites found across Canada on the grounds of former Indian residential schools. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates that at least 4,100 children died at Indian residential schools. There were 130 schools spread across Canada between 1831 and 1996 and estimated 150,000 children attended these schools. Following the 1876 Indian Act, the Canadian government made attendance of indigenous children in these schools mandatory.
Indian residential schools were set up with the aim to assimilate indigenous children into the Canadian settler-colonial society. Many First Nations’ chiefs have referred to these schools as tools of ethnocide as they destroyed the children’s indigeneity. Arguably, the schools and the training they provided constituted an example of ‘necropolitics’. Building on Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, Mbembe has defined necropolitics as “the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die”. We can see this, for example, in the comment made by Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (1913 to 1932) that more children died in residential schools than on reservations and that this provided a “final solution of our Indian Problem”.
This research project comes out of the MOOC on Indigenous Canada (University of Alberta) I recently undertook and my long-standing interest in critical realist framing alongside the constructivist nature of race as a tool of hegemony as well as my passion for indigenous justice. The project closely aligns with the York research themes of Justice and Equality and, to a lesser extent, Culture and Communication.
My research will draw on a wide range of primary sources, including autobiographies, memoirs from and interviews with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation’s survivors- alongside the oral and written statements by former residential school students for the Truth and Reconciliation commission. It will explore how survivors have perceived the enculturating effects of residential schooling; that is, the competency in the dynamics of their nation’s culture and the extent of the acquisition of the established norms and values. I will assess the extent to which the members of the nation lost competency in the language, values, and rituals of their national culture. It will be argued that alongside the children who died in the institutions, many others died a symbolic death because of the enculturing effects of their schooling, thus the term ‘necropolitics’ best describes the government’s practice of placing indigenous children in these schools.
I will ensure I meet deadlines and fulfil my research objective by compiling my research and creating a series of blogposts for the website of IGDC where I will share the key findings of my research paper and relate them to recent developments and debates in Canada (and the USA) by survivors, NGOs, advocacy groups and scholars on the impact of residential schools.