This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the environmental-related work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars who identify as women, trans, and non-binary people.
I recently asked the (white) teacher candidates in my doctoral study, “How would you define social justice?”
Here are some of their responses:
“everyone is treated fairly”
“equal access to opportunities”
“making sure people have a fair trial”
“privileges and opportunities”
“equal opportunities and treatment for all people”
These teacher candidates’ responses indicate that they believe in a meritocratic system. As just one of the many pillars that uphold racist structures in education, meritocracy is the belief that “everyone has equal opportunity because we are all basically the same; all that is required to get ahead is hard work, talent, and effort” (Schick & St. Denis, 2003, p. 8). This belief assumes that systems and institutions judge people based on merit alone, and that any pre-existing barriers can be overcome by individual determination. Schick and St. Denis (2003) explain that meritocracy is “a fundamental promise of capitalism,” one which ignores the reality that individual choices are always mediated by established racialized, gendered, and classed systems, and the degree to which hard work will ‘pay-off’ depends upon your position within these systems (p. 8). Consistent with conceptualizations of settler colonialism as an ongoing project that is directly tied to land, capital, and resources (Arvin, Tuck, & Morrill, 2013), the promotion of meritocracy in educational systems is central to maintaining deeply unequal economic structures.
In the ‘Canadian’ context, meritocratic discourses ignore the ways that settler colonial economic systems have been created to foster success for some (primarily white Canadians), and ensure failure for others (often Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), regardless of how hard people work. There isn’t a more perfect example of how these economic systems have been asymmetrically organized and entrenched than the history of the allocation of land and resources on the Canadian Prairies, in particular in Saskatchewan, and the subsequent justification for this unequal system through the meritocratic discourse of ‘work hard and you will succeed’ in the education systems in the province.
Here I should note—I am not suggesting that early settlers did not work hard—they definitely did. However, the option to cultivate their success was structurally denied to others, and premised on the colonial, Eurocentric assertion of terra nullius (the land was empty and ready for the taking), and this structural exclusion is what makes meritocracy in the region so insidious. For context, Indigenous historical accounts confirm that Indigenous Peoples have been living in the Prairie region for more than 11,000 years (Office of the Treaty Commissioner, 2019; Stonechild, 2005), and currently, make up approximately 16% of all people living in the area known as Saskatchewan (Statistics Canada, 2016). The intentional obfuscation of this history and current reality is at the heart of many meritocratic settlement narratives.
In Saskatchewan, structural advantage via land division and use was given exclusively to White settlers; homesteads were only available for purchase for settlers who were of ‘British descent.’ Until 1930, the federal government controlled the land division in the area through the Dominion Lands Act; settlers could obtain a 160-acre homestead for a $10 fee, and had the option to buy this land outright for $3 per acre (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, 2011). Hundreds of thousands of settlers came to the Prairie region as a result of these policies (Yarhi & Regehr, 2006). After 1930, the Saskatchewan Department of Immigration and Colonization assumed control of the land in the province, assessed incoming settler populations, and continued to sell large swaths of land to primarily White settlers at low prices (McCaig, 1925/1932).
Structural economic disadvantages were simultaneously put in place for Black people (first through slavery, and later through a proposed ban on Black immigration), for people of colour (including through the Chinese Head Tax), and in particular for Indigenous Peoples in the region. Evidence shows that the early iterations of the Canadian state (the ‘Crown’) directed the killing and starvation of Indigenous Peoples throughout settlement in the Prairie region (Starblanket, 2018), including leading up to and during treaty negotiations (Daschuk, 2013). The treaties signed during this time were foundational to the Crown’s ability to annex land that could be commodified and sold to settlers, and the promises made to Indigenous Peoples concerning land use, education, and healthcare during these negotiations have largely been misconstrued and unmet (Cardinal & Hildebrandt, 2000). The passing of the Indian Act in 1876 laid out further restrictions, disallowing Indigenous people from owning property, prohibiting the sale of agricultural products and livestock by Indigenous people, and finalizing the designation of land for Indigenous nations through the reserve system, concentrating and often relocating nations to resource-barren areas, or to land not suitable for farming and development.
These economic divides (and literal land divisions) were further entrenched by government policies and economic organizations designed to support settler farmers. As a result of initial poverty amongst settlers (and the potential failure of Western settlement), the provincial and federal governments created organizations to aid farmer success, and enacted policies to financially support failing farms during economic downturns (McManus, 2011, pp. 213-215). Saskatchewan also saw the creation of many cooperatives and unions to bolster farming in the area over the next century (Lemisko & Clausen, 2017). These organizations, such as the National Farmers’ Union, The Canadian Wheat Board, and the Saskatchewan Grain Growers, although cooperative, made the ongoing settler colonial project in the province possible through ensuring relative economic success for settler farmers. Consequently, these government supports and economic organizations were not historically available to similarly struggling Indigenous farmers (Stonechild, 2005).
In recent decades, continuous government granting programs, and the consolidation of smaller family farms into larger, corporate farms or ‘agribusinesses’ has meant further economic advantage for the descendants of settler families, including those who could sell their farmland, lease land to developers and resource extraction companies, and especially for those whose farms became corporate-like enterprises (the number of ‘family farms’ in 1996 was close to 57,000, and in 2016, dropped to just over 34,500 as a result of consolidations and corporatization; see OMAFRA, 2019). In recent years, the selling off of ‘Crown’ land in the province has also continued to exacerbate the slow extinguishment of Indigenous Peoples’ inherent land rights (Zink & Brass, 2017).
These unequal economic structures have been historically justified through meritocratic ‘work hard’ discourses in education systems in the province, and these narratives have been reified for so long that their existence seems ‘right’ or ‘natural’ (Schick & St. Denis, 2003). Stanley (2006) notes that these meritocratic ‘grand narratives’ are one-sided, Euro-centric stories that nations tell themselves about who they are, and are “not particularly good history” (p. 35), as they take one version of the past and claim that it is the past. The grand narrative of the success of the settlement of the Prairies circulates heavily in public education systems, and goes something like this: Early waves of settlers arrived to barren/empty land with very little prior training, money, or possessions. They had to ‘break’ the land or risk losing their homesteads, but ultimately cultivated the land (and their own success) through hard work (McLean, 2018). This narrative has been well-documented; these early farming years are defined through discourses of ‘hard work’ in history books (Dale-Burnett, 2006), the idealization of rural farm life in schools through the promotion of ‘Country Life Ideology’ (Lemisko & Clausen, 2017), an emphasis on individual industriousness in early civic education textbooks (McCaig, 1925/1932), and through assimilationist efforts in early teacher education programs that stressed hard work and agrarian thought (Lemisko & Clausen, 2017, p. 163). Rarely, however, are students also taught about the historical and ongoing support these farmers received to aid their success, and the simultaneous structural disadvantages constructed for everyone else.
At present, teachers in Saskatchewan continue to reassert these settler colonial ideas about meritocracy, which re-inscribe racism and White dominance in their classrooms. Educators are often not willing to discuss racism, in particular anti-Indigenous racism, as it is seen by teachers as a ‘taboo’ subject in the Prairies (Gebhard, 2017a; 2017b). Teachers also perpetuate racism through minimizing the impact of racism in schools, and through deferring to the meritocratic idea of ‘colour-blindness,’ in which claiming to ‘not see race’ (we are all the same) is used as a justification by teachers to not engage with the impacts of racialization and racism in their schools and classrooms (McCreary, 2011). Those teachers who do acknowledge race, unfortunately, also tend to construct racial and cultural ‘others’ as the problem, in particular Indigenous people (Comeau, 2007). Still other teachers contend that racism consists only of individual acts of hatred (and is not built into systems), which supports the meritocratic idea that individuals are at the heart of their own successes and failures. Interpersonal stereotyping, as a symptom of this systemic problem, is also frequently weaponized against those people (often Indigenous women) who call out racism and racist structures in education (McLean, Wilson, & Lee, 2017).
In a system that is assumed to be meritocratic, whether it be an economic or educational system, those who are successful are presumed to have worked hard for what they have (and generally believe that they have ‘earned’ their success), and those who are not successful are assumed to have flaws of character (and can internalize this ‘failure’ as such). Until meritocratic thinking can be successfully disrupted as one of the many ways of tackling racism, teachers and teacher candidates (sometimes unknowingly, like those quoted at the beginning of this article) will continue to promote this harmful myth in their classrooms, and will fail their students by refusing to engage with issues of racism/meritocracy in their classroom pedagogy, school policies, and in broader educational structures.
As educators, it is our job to take responsibility for our White and/or settler ancestry, and the benefits that we receive from systems built to benefit these groups. Although education alone will not change these systems, one of the many ways we can support change is through disrupting historical grand narratives that are premised on meritocracy – teaching history that sheds light on the creation of unequal economic systems and inequitable land division and use, understanding how education ingrains these histories and structures, and guiding our students to challenge meritocratic and racist discourses in their own thinking, in the histories that they learn, and in their communities.