What Role Do Historians Play in ‘Truth and Reconciliation’?

We are currently in the midst of a national conversation about cultural genocide, recently reaffirmed in the public eye by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As regular readers of Clio’s Current can attest, this blog aims to engage with issues of national and international significance. We have written extensively about Aboriginal history, but have yet to discuss the role historians might play in the future. To assess this question, it is necessary to explore some of the issues in Aboriginal history thus far "uncovered" by historians.

Maggie MacLeod introduces the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Maggie MacLeod introduces the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Although removed temporally and geographically from modern Canada, Mark Harrison’s Climates and Constitutions represents a most apt study of the origins of European attitudes towards race, environment and imperialist expansion. In this innovative book, Harrison delves into British writings on the Indian environment to chart European conceptualizations about the prospects for acclimatization and settlement between the seventeenth and nineteenth century. Noting that European perceptions of disease and the Indian environment changed over time, he argues that “guarded optimism about acclimatization and the colonization of India prior to 1800, gave way to pessimism and the alienation of Europeans from the Indian environment; a shift which was closely related to the emergence of ideas of race and consolidation of colonial rule.”

Early British attitudes suggested the Indian climate had made its inhabitants “supine and fatalistic,” and ripe for conquest by a superior racial group that had been born and strengthened out of the harsh weather of northern Europe. The dominant conception of the human body held that it was capable of adaptation to new environments, but an “epistemological foundation for a theory of race” did not exist. Rather, most of the writings examined by Harrison explained physical and mental human variation by referring to social and environmental factors. The Indian climate had shaped the constitutions of some Europeans to the extent that they had become “Indianized” and incapable of returning home. As a result, Europeans became increasingly skeptical of Indian colonization. 

By attributing the resistance of European colonization in India to human perceptions of environment, Harrison challenged long-held historical assumptions that pointed to political reasoning. The intersections of his work still resonate with historians of medicine and the body, and certainly have relevance for scholars of colonial Canada. Perhaps most useful for comparative examination with Canada is Harrison’s discussion of “climatic determinism,” or the notion that the physical environment predisposes human social development. The theory of climatic determinism views development through a geographic lens, where groups located further from the equator tend to be more developed. In assessing Canadian history, environmental determinism seems more appropriate. Predicated on the basis that the environment determines biological traits, this theory applies in the colonial context.

A world map showing all the truth and reconciliation commissions in  Museum of Memory and Human Rights ,  Santiago, Chile.

A world map showing all the truth and reconciliation commissions in Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile.

Environmental determinism extended far beyond the history described by Harrison. Historian Michael Osborne has shown that French and British acclimatization groups in the nineteenth century reflected Eurocentric notions of colonial agriculture, settlement, and development. Equally significant in Osborne’s estimation is the recognition that the acclimatization movement, marked by a fascination with the exotic and a knowledge of colonial affairs, had spread beyond the scientific and administrative elites of Europe. Even when acclimatization projects failed, they functioned as a symbol of human dominance over nature.

That the acclimatization movement penetrated Canada should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the very dominance of colonial themes in Aboriginal history suggests we still have much to learn about the persons and contexts that shape(d) and transform(ed) Native-newcomer relations. As evident in books such as James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains and Karen Stote’s An Act of Genocide, both of which have received attention on this blog, the history of colonialism in the Dominion and later in Canada is marred with the imperial and racist intensions of white settler groups who marginalized and used Aboriginal persons for exploitative means. Both studies are new and important contributions to what has become a strong and diverse body of literature, constructed on an evidentiary record that highlights the depths of what historian Kristin Burnett refers to as the “colonial project.”

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901

Recent scholarship on the history of government science has added to the field. Ian Mosby’s widely read article entitled “Administering Colonial Science” revealed the details of a series of nutritional studies conducted on malnourished Aboriginal peoples in Northern Manitoba and in residential schools between 1942 and 1952. His primary argument takes aim at the bureaucrats, doctors, and scientists who, “recognized the problems of hunger and malnutrition, yet increasingly came to view Aboriginal bodies as “experiential materials” and residential schools and Aboriginal communities as kinds of “laboratories” that they could use to pursue a number of political and professional interests.” According to Mosby, researchers devised the experiments in an attempt to deal with the so-called “Indian Problem of dependency” while also fulfilling “the longer-term goal of integrating and assimilating Aboriginal peoples into the Canadian population.” To government-funded scientists, Aboriginal persons thus simultaneously represented a tragedy of health and a research opportunity open for exploitation.

Mosby situates his findings in a colonial context and investigates shifting attitudes in Canada towards the ethics of human testing and biomedical experimentation. His work relates closely to an approach well defined by historian Mary-Ellen Kelm. In Colonizing Bodies, Kelm explores the impact of colonization on Aboriginal health in British Columbia during the first half of the twentieth century. She argues that Euro-Canadian medicine supported the colonial agenda of Canada’s Indian policy by creating and sustaining an Aboriginal ill-health crisis. “Aboriginal bodies were not simply buffeted by the forces of colonization and resistance,” however. As Kelm makes clear, in relations with European newcomers, Aboriginal peoples were culturally and politically active. Although the processes of colonization excluded Aboriginal forms of medicine and silenced cross-cultural medical dialogue, “those same processes did not prevent the First Nations from building for themselves a medical system that incorporated new forms while maintaining an indigenous base of medical thought.”

As shown by this brief sketch of historical writing on Aboriginal issues, historians have played a significant role in “revealing” the depth of Canada’s colonial past. At the core of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the need for recognition, on the part of all Canadians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, of the history of cultural marginalisation and mistreatment in this country. Perhaps the most significant role historians can play in the future of cultural relations in Canada will remain unknown, but certainly, it seems, historians have a responsibility to inform. With new evidence, both written and verbal, historians must continue to reassess and ask new questions to help provide context where it might otherwise be lacking.