Reading Lists: Residential Schools and Canadian Colonialism

Content warning: this article covers topics of colonialism and genocide in Canada.

In early June of 2021 news reports emerged about the remains of Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. A couple of weeks later, 751 more children’s graves were counted at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. The numbers will increase. It is widely acknowledged that most, if not all, of the hundreds of residential schools in Canada have similar graveyards. The residential school system was specifically designed to eliminate Indigenous people (TRC, 2021).

This is not the first time reports of this kind have made it into national media attention. Nor is it a new revelation. There is a long history of both documenting the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and of discarding and erasing it. This is not an accident.

If the recent stories about residential schools and related events have caught your attention, but you feel like you lack the information to put them in context you’re not alone. You might begin by learning a bit about whose land you’re on.

A map showing Indigenous territories, languages, and treaties.

Interactive and searchable map of Indigenous territories, languages, and treaties produced by Native Land Digital.

The following list of readings and listenings may also be of interest to you. This list is not at all exhaustive.

For a very approachable and direct introduction to many issues affecting Indigenous people in what is today Canada, consider Chelsea Vowel’s (Métis) book Indigenous Writes.

Cover image of the book "Indigenous Writes"Vowel’s book is divided into short, frank, and highly readable chapters. The entire text is an excellent primer, but you may wish to start with Chapter 20: Monster – The Residential-School Legacy. After that, consult Part 3 of the book which busts a variety stereotypes and myths about Indigenous people.

Vowel’s book works well in combination with Ryan McMahon’s (Anishinaabe) 12 Step Guide to Decolonizing Canada.

Image depicting an intersection of two roads. One road called "Colonization Road", the other called "Second Street".McMahon’s work on the guide is an amazing use of comedy to address serious topics including a look at the colonial founding documents of Canada, treaties, and land.

You might have heard of the Indian Act, a law passed in 1876 and still in effect today, but you may not know what it does. For a primer consider Bob Joseph’s (Gwawaenuk Nation21 Things You May Not Have Known About the Indian Act.

For a broad overview of Indigenous people fighting for their human rights in Canada from the mid-20th Century onward, see Arthur Manuel’s (Ktunaxa and Secwépemc) and Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson’s (Syilx, Westbank First Nation) Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call.

A cover image of the book "Unsettling Canada".This book is especially good for helping readers understand the role of two former prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau (settler; father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) and Jean Chrétien (settler), in actively attempting to dispossess Indigenous people of their land.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada provides free access to huge volumes of documentation on residential schools and other systems of anti-Indigenous oppression. The TRC’s reports on the schools cover multiple volumes and several thousand pages of documentation.

A cover image of volume 4 of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commision report.

Volume 4 (pdf), published in 2016, specifically addresses missing children and unmarked burials. The Commission also published 94 calls to action (pdf) that are available as a short, 10 page briefing.

There are many great podcasts to learn from. Here are just three:

  • Media Indigena. Hosted and produced by Rick Harp (Cree), the show’s “raison d’etre has been to inspire and conspire with those sharing our passion for advancing the well-being of Indigenous peoples.”
  • Canadaland’s series Thunderbay. A deep dive into the city in Canada with the highest homicide and hate crimes rates in the country. “Locals call it Murder Bay. It might be the most dangerous city for Indigenous youth in the world. But to others, it’s their white nirvana.”
  • Canadaland Commons: Oka. “The Oka Crisis was the biggest military confrontation on Canadian soil in more than a century. On its face, it was about a golf course expansion. But for the Mohawks who took up arms, it was the culmination of a centuries-long fight for recognition of their sovereignty and their land.”

If you’re inspired to further deepen your learning, then consider the University of Alberta’s free online course called Indigenous Canada.

Josh Lepawsky (settler) is Collaborating Editor at Discard Studies and author of Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste (2018) with MIT Press.