Indian Residential Schools: An Environmental and Gender History

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and gender history. The entire series is available here.

I do not actually plan to write a book with the above title, but I would definitely read one. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its final report in December of 2015. The chair of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, estimated that a copy of the report weighs about twenty-five pounds. I haven’t weighed my copy, but I suspect he is not far off. Volume 1, The History, is divided into two parts, each of which is over eight hundred pages long.

Some number of pounds of summer reading. You can also check out  this amazing initiative to breathe life into the report, led by Chelsea Vowel, Zoe Todd, Erica Violet Lee, and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers.
Some number of pounds of summer reading. You can also check out this amazing initiative to breathe life into the report, led by Chelsea Vowel, Zoe Todd, Erica Violet Lee, and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers.

From what I can tell so far, the report is neither an environmental history nor a gender history. It certainly could be either, or both, but it is more than that as well. One of the slimmer documents, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, introduces the concept of cultural genocide by describing that states which engage in cultural genocide “set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the target group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted.” [1] The report then explains that the Canadian government pursued a policy of cultural genocide “because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources” (6).

In situating the history of residential schools within the framework of cultural genocide and within the broader context of European imperialism, the TRC report connects residential schools and environmental history. Canadian government representatives took Indigenous children away from their families, communities and territories to residential schools in order to secure the land base for non-Indigenous families and communities. The transfer of land from Indigenous peoples to European powers and then to the Canadian government and settlers had, and continues to have, profound consequences for both people and land. It doesn’t get much more environmental historical than that.

As the report illustrates, gender is also central to the history of residential schools. Just as environmental historians have connected imperialism and environmental change, so too have Indigenous scholars asserted that replacing Indigenous systems of governance with band councils controlled by the Canadian state particularly disempowered Indigenous women, who often held positions of power in their communities, specifically those related to land (5). The effort through the residential school system to turn Indigenous children into “farmers and farmers’ wives” is the kind of evidence that Indigenous feminist scholars such as Kim Anderson, Bonita Lawrence and Verna St. Denis use to support the claim that the enforcement of European patriarchy onto Indigenous systems was a fundamental component of colonialism (15). Here, environmental and gender history are inseparable, since the interruption of Indigenous relationships with land took place through the imposition of a gendered hierarchy that also dictated land-use patterns.

Patriarchy shaped residential schools in other ways as well. For instance, the whole missionary enterprise upon which residential schools depended in turn relied on what the TRC report calls the “often underpaid and voluntary labour of missionary wives and single women who had been recruited by missionary societies” (20). Women did much of the daily work of empire in the residential schools. Indeed, they made possible the maintenance of a system that had as its goal the transformation of Indigenous society for as little money as possible (30–31). Gender played more than a minor role in the history of residential schools.

But we should not read the TRC report because it is an environmental and/or a gender history. We should read it because it tells stories that people should know. It tells us, for one thing, the perspectives of the children who went to residential schools, and who lived and still live with the consequences of what happened to them there. We should read the report because it helps us to understand the roots of present-day unjust and dysfunctional relationships among Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people and the territory that supports all of us.

Similarly, for gender historians or environmental historians or whatever kind of historians, whether something “counts” as environmental history or gender history matters much less than the story being told and the reasons for its telling. I find it difficult to understand how any history cannot be environmental history, given the fundamental character of “the environment” to everyone’s lives, past and present, although I also understand the concerns that some scholars (and not others) have about the direction of the discipline.

Humans can last only a few minutes without oxygen, only a few days without water, and only a few weeks without food. Anyone who has ever organized a conference knows that humans run quickly into their animal natures. Sure, it’s important to schedule good sessions, but it’s absolutely essential to order good food (and coffee!) and to have well-signed bathrooms close by. Some of us might not like being reminded that we are mammals, but of course we are and have always been, even in the past, even if we don’t write about it. (Indeed, many of us who now write about it belong to groups that were, in one way or another, characterized as less-than-human in the not-so-distant past.) Really, environmental history only calls attention to a dimension of human (and non-human) existence that was always there and always central to life.

Gender history similarly allows into the frame something that was always there, even if many feminist scholars, myself included, would rather not have to pay attention to the way that sexism has shaped lives and histories. As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed notes, there can be sadness as well as joy in making feminist sense of the world, in the “gradual realisation that gender requires giving up possibilities you did not know you had.” After all, she says, “you might feel all the more shattered, all the more fragile, the more you realise just how much there is to come up against.”

It does matter what we call things and how we define things. Environmental history and gender history are words we can use when writing position requests and on job postings. They tell us what needs to be in the frame. But the actual work we do is more than these words can cover. Our job is to tell the best stories we can with the tools we have about histories that matter. When we get too hung up on who and what counts as what kind of history or historian, we can lose focus on this larger purpose. And when we lose focus, we also risk losing people along the way: people who might well benefit from learning about what we have learned, but who are uninterested in the specialized conversations of a discipline or two.

Environmental and gender history have both benefitted from conversations across disciplines. These conversations provide us with lenses and tools to do our work. They might also make us confused about where one area of study ends and another begins. No one said, though, that scholarly work was supposed to be tidy. It can, however, be relevant and vital, especially if we make sure to look up and out as well as down and in.

Feature Image: Two boys cutting hay with two teams of horses, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, unknown date. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada), 5. Subsequent citations of this report will take the form of in-line page numbers.

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Jocelyn Thorpe

Jocelyn Thorpe is an associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the history and legacies of, as well as challenges to, colonialism in the Canadian context, examining how past discourses and relationships of power influence the present. With Innu artist Joanna Barker, she is currently working on a five-year project about the history of relationships among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Newfoundlanders and the territory they have come to share. She is the author of Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender, and the Making of Canadian Nature (UBC Press, 2012) and coeditor with Stephanie Rutherford and L. Anders Sandberg of Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research (Routledge, 2017).


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