Scholar Spotlight - Grace McWilliam

Laidlaw Scholar Alumna, Grace McWilliam, on the Dark History of Residential Schools and the Resilience of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Canada.
Scholar Spotlight - Grace McWilliam

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Grace McWilliam, a University of York Laidlaw Scholar Alumna, Uncovers the Truth of Canada's Kamloops Residential Schools and Its Impact on Indigenous Lives.

Research title: Killing the Spirit of a Nation: Necropolitics, Residential Schools and the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Canada

My research delved into the colonial history of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of 215 children were discovered in May 2021, shedding light on the broader impact of Canada's residential school system. Grounded in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which identified the systemic cultural genocide against Indigenous communities across Canada, I used  Joseph-Achille Mbembe's necropolitics as a lens of analysis. My research evaluated how the settler state, through culturally genocidal and necropolitical policies, devalued the lives of Indigenous children. It argues that these policies failed to protect students from physical, cultural, and spiritual harm, perpetuating the savage-civilised binary constructed around white Christian supremacy. The research also highlights the enduring impact on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, evident in the permanent disruption of their traditional ways of life.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, have faced enduring colonial practices, including land dispossession, restrictions on traditional activities, and forced abandonment of indigeneity for citizenship. This research underscores the permanence of the disruption caused by the residential school system, which not only physically harmed children but also inflicted cultural death. By documenting over 4,100 deaths through the Missing Children Project, it substantiates Indigenous claims and the TRC's assertion that the residential school system was a culturally genocidal policy.

While acknowledging the genocidal legacy of the Kamloops Indigenous Residential School, my research also explores Indigenous resistance, as evidenced by the transformation of the school into the Secwepemc Museum in the 1980s. It emphasises the ongoing struggle for reconciliation, reparations, and the need to understand the profound effects of colonialism systematically and systemically. Ultimately, this research contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the necropolitical policies underpinning colonialism, its contemporary formulations, and its enduring impact on Indigenous communities.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

During my time in sixth form, I was fortunate to have an exceptional head of department who recognised my burgeoning interest in sociology. Prior to her maternity leave, she gave me a copy of Frantz Fanon's seminal work, 'The Wretched of The Earth.' This profound text served as a catalyst in demystifying the intricacies of colonisation and imperialism, unveiling the construction and manifestation of imperialist identities. It prompted a scholarly pursuit, leading me to engage with academic literature on Indigeneity, neoimperialism, global apartheid, and notably, necropolitics.

Describing this academic trajectory as transformative would be an understatement, as it dismantled preconceived notions surrounding empire, racism, and international economic structures. Recognising my ongoing socioeconomic benefit as derived from colonial legacies, racial hierarchies, and economic disparities between the global north and south, the incorporation of critical theory in my academic framework assumes paramount significance.

The selection of Kamloops as a focal point for my research arose from observing the global mourning of Indigenous communities following the revelation of the discovered remains, I found myself moved by the many tributes and calls for justice and solidarity. The intention behind my research was to centralise these children in a compassionate manner while documenting the cruel policies they endured, and shedding light on the systemic nature of colonial policies. Incorporating survivor testimonies, my aim continues to be to elevate awareness regarding the deliberate and systematic character of these policies, emphasising the need for critical examination and understanding.

How have you applied your leadership skills in real life? What are some insights & lessons from your experience?

During the scholarship’s Leadership in Action phase, I worked with Older Citizens Advice York, a small, local charity which offers a free, confidential advocacy service to people over the age of fifty. In this timeframe, I developed an LGBTQI+ inclusion toolkit consisting of inclusion guidelines, a fifty-three page academic report,  a training video for volunteers, posters, blog posts and flyers. Although I had initially found myself overwhelmed by leading a project like this with little experience, I quickly fell into a rhythm and began confidently moving between conducting a survey, talking to local LGBTQI+ groups and negotiating the line between idealism, effective advocacy practice and structural limitation with the advocacy manager within the charity.

The leadership skills I acquired through Laidlaw have enabled me to hold multiple committee roles with university societies which centralise causes I feel incredibly passionate about, including the University of York branches of Freedom from Torture as Campaign Manager (who are one of the world’s largest providers of therapy and resources for survivor’s of torture) and Social Policy Officer for the Drug Science Society. A key leadership skill that guided me through the scholarship and beyond was the ability to resile, by challenging preconceived notions of my own abilities and highlighting the importance of adaptability in leadership. As there are always circumstances beyond our control, the adaptability of leadership becomes significant. I have also begun to undertake The Oxford Ethical Leadership Programme in order to further my leadership experience in preparation for the career I aspire to have in being a head of research at an NGO. I also believe this experience has influenced me to apply leadership skills in everyday situations, most notably I now find myself having the confidence to naturally mediate and direct the conversation in group work scenarios. My main takeaway from my experience thus far in developing leadership skills is that leadership is a muscle that constantly needs to be exercised, developed and assessed. 

Please provide a short list of bullet points of your top leadership tips

  • Do not view failure as the end of the road. You either succeed or learn and get to try again with more information and experience.
  • Treat your team with compassion and understanding. You do not have to understand their life experiences or perspective to understand they are an expert on themselves and their own needs.
  • Define success on your own terms. Step away from the conceptualisation of success as expansion for the sake of expansion and material acquisition, decide what truly matters to you. For me, the ultimate measure of success is the maximisation of social value.
  • To be an ethical leader who surpasses performativity and aesthetics and creates meaningful change, research the structural factors that reproduce and maintain inequality and power imbalances.
  • Hold space for accountability and self-reflection. It is hard to hear critical feedback but it is necessary for self growth. Similarly, it is okay to act in a way you believe is correct and in reflection realise you should have acted differently- providing you learn and hold yourself accountable to whomever was negatively affected. 

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

Being a Laidlaw Scholar has provided me with many incredible opportunities; from presenting my research poster at the London School of Economics, researching a topic that I was deeply passionate about, to engaging in leadership training and working with a local charity on LGBTQI+ inclusion. While the completion of the latter project marked the end of my time as a Laidlaw Scholar it also marks the start of potential local impact, which is thrilling to consider as an undergraduate. 

However, the most significant aspect of being a Laidlaw Scholar is the incredible network of fellow scholars. It is an honour to be a member of an ambitious academic cohort with differing life experiences and perspectives, but who share a mutual passion for growth and discovery. Being a Laidlaw Scholar is being part of a collective which offers encouragement and support while fuelling an atmosphere of personal and collective achievement

Here I am standing next to my research poster before presenting at the London School of Economics as part of the Laidlaw Conference 2022

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

Steven Donzinger is a leading environmental lawyer from America who won a multi-billion court case against Chevron on the contamination of the Lagio Agrio region of Ecuador and has been fighting on behalf of Indigenous people for nearly three decades. During the case he was placed under house arrest for nearly a thousand days, this home detention was declared illegal under international law by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. Despite his detention he continued his work, I find his determination, sense of justice and resilience extremely admirable. 

I also greatly admire Patima Tungpuchayakul who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for her work in aiding the end of slavery within the politically powerful and profit-driven fishing industry in Southeast Asia. She co-founded the Labour Protection Network in 2004 with her husband (Sompong Srakaew) which has assisted over 5,000 Thai and migrant workers. In 2014, she also led the effort to rescue 2,000 captive and stranded fisherman from isolated Indonesian Islands. To conceptualise the tangible impact of changing the fate of over 5000 individuals through skill, dedication, bravery and persistence in leadership is somewhat overwhelming, but definitely inspirational

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I hope in the future that no one would be structurally forced into deficit so other may live in excess. Through my future work, I believe I can positively contribute to a more compassionate world with transformed and more ethical principles- one that moves away from the superficial and expansion for the sake of expansion, domination for the sake of domination, exclusion for the sake of exclusion. I would hope we can move towards a society in which no human would be perceived as innately more deserving than another. Instead, I dream of a future where social value is centralised and embraced in the ethos of production, infrastructure and organisations. To do this we need to create a mode of ethical leadership which shifts beyond the simulacrum of progression and focuses on the root causes and structures which create, maintain and reproduce power imbalances, inequalities and reduced life chances

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Currently Binging: Painkiller - A drama series focusing on the production of the opioid crisis, the legal and business drama is intersected by the real-life stories of those who fell victim to the crisis as retold by their loved ones. 

📚 My top book recommendation: 

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

🎶 My anthem: As good a reason- Paris Paloma

🎵 Podcast obsession: The Social Breakdown- The ultimate pick for any social and political science student or anyone who wants to start unravelling the intricate complexities of the world around us.

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: 

Going home from university to spend time with all my pets! There is nothing better in the winter than snuggling up with my labradors and cats. 

💭 Parting thoughts:

I would like to plug the following NGOs: Freedom from Torture, Survival International, Cultural Survival and the Refugee Council.  I also implore aspiring leaders to find a cause that lights a fire under themselves and forces them to see a world beyond their own lived experiences


You can find Grace on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Grace's research, check out her research here.

Grace is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at University of York. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

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⚡️ Keir Chauhan, a Laidlaw Scholar at University College London on the power of birds in bridging humanity and nature.

⚡️ Lucy Nyamaah, a Laidlaw Scholar at Oxford University's Saïd Business School on pushing past gender norms and envisioning a female-led future in the energy sector.

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