Indigenous scholar questions past writings on residential schools by incoming YukonU professor

Crystal Gail Fraser, assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, and Ken Coates, incoming chair of Indigenous governance at Yukon University. (Submitted by Crystal Fraser/Jason Warick/CBC - image credit)
Crystal Gail Fraser, assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, and Ken Coates, incoming chair of Indigenous governance at Yukon University. (Submitted by Crystal Fraser/Jason Warick/CBC - image credit)

A prominent Northern historian will soon be the new head of Yukon University's Indigenous governance program, and at least one fellow scholar is raising questions about some of Ken Coates's writing on residential schools.

Crystal Gail Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich'in woman originally from Inuvik, N.W.T., who's now an assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, says the argument put forward by Coates in a 2014 essay is akin to telling Indigenous people to "get over it."

"I think the main argument that Coates was advancing at the time was that we know all there is to know about Indian residential schools and really if we're going to pay attention to this well-studied topic, we need to focus on positive experiences," Fraser told CBC Midday host Leonard Linklater earlier this week.

"I've had many people during my student and now academic career, you know, tell me that residential schools is not important ... to see that piece in 2014 obviously touched a nerve with me."

Coates, however, says his argument in the essay — entitled "Second Thoughts about Residential Schools" — has been misconstrued, and that he's spent much of his career researching and advocating for more study of residential schools and the Indigenous experience in Canada.

"I think it's kind of an interesting piece — you sort of pull something out of context and sort of, you know, try to explain a whole career based on an interpretation, not very fulsome, about that one article," Coates said.

Fraser originally wrote an online response to Coates' article in 2015, along with University of Toronto historian Ian Mosby. She recently shared their piece again on social media, "in light of the recent announcement from Yukon University."

Last month, Coates was named chair of Yukon University's Indigenous governance program. That program was launched in 2018 and focuses on legislation and policy as it relates to Indigenous self-government and self-determination, through an Indigenous lens. He'll start in that role in July.

Coates grew up in Yukon and is well-respected as an historian and scholar. He is currently based at the University of Saskatchewan and co-founded The Northern Review journal, which he still edits.

His 2014 article for The Dorchester Reviewa biannual journal of historical commentary that claims "no political agenda but a robustly polemical one" — describes Coates's upbringing in Yukon and his admittedly limited direct experience with residential schools.

"I have struggled over the last thirty years to make sense of the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal people," Coates wrote.

He goes on to describe how Indigenous people and communities have been devastated and victimized by residential schools, institutional racism, and many other factors throughout Canada's history, all contributing to "Aboriginal social crisis."  He also describes how Indigenous people have fought back against these forces over the years, justly reasserting their rights and reclaiming power over their own lives.

Submitted by Ken Coates
Submitted by Ken Coates

Then he gets to the heart of his argument.

"Perhaps it is time to refocus attention away from Residential Schools, the devastating impact of which is well known and the constructive elements largely ignored. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission winding down its important work, the country may be able to move away from mono-causal explanations for contemporary difficulties," Coates wrote.

"Far from wallowing in the history of victimization, many First Nations have gotten on with life in systematic and effective ways. They do not define themselves by the residential school experiences. Neither should Canadians as a whole," he concludes.

Fraser and Mosby's published response in 2015 questions that perspective, in particular, Coates' argument that the impacts of residential schools were by that time "well known."

"Though we agree with Coates that Canada's colonial legacy is complex, deep-seated, and extends far beyond the legacy of Indian Residential Schools — something, we think, that no historian of residential schooling would disagree with — there still remain so many unanswered questions about the residential school system itself," they wrote.

Candice Ward Photography
Candice Ward Photography

Speaking to CBC this week, Fraser said that hasn't changed since 2015.

"I mean, the Kamloops announcement in May 2021 around unmarked graves demonstrated that to the world," she said.

"To be clear, survivors and our ancestors and communities have long known about these deaths, but we have never had the institutional support or resources or interest in pursuing these kinds of histories. And so there is still a lot to know about residential schools."

'The puzzle is much more complicated'

Also speaking to CBC this week, Coates said he agrees there needs to be much more research into residential schools, and that he has never denied that or intended to minimize that history.

"There's a tendency in non-Indigenous people in Canada to see residential schools as the thing that caused all the problems," he said.

"Residential schools are a really important part of that puzzle. But the puzzle is much more complicated. And sometimes when you look at one piece of the puzzle, even if it's a really big piece, it might even be one of the most important pieces, you missed the larger picture. That's what I was trying to get at."

He's not inclined to write another article to keep the debate going, however.

"In academic circles, rebuttals to rebuttals create other rebuttals. I think I've spoken out an awful lot about residential schools and in ways that I'm sure [Fraser]'s actually found very, very, very comforting, and very, very reassuring in terms of my comment," Coates said.

He also said that his new role at Yukon University will allow him to listen and seek guidance from Indigenous communities to determine research and educational goals.

Paul Tukker/CBC
Paul Tukker/CBC

Fraser, meanwhile, said that as a student and scholar, she's read a lot of Coates' work over the years, and "there is a lot that we could probably agree on."

She's also not calling for Coates to resign from his new role at Yukon University. She said it's up to the Yukon University community, and Indigenous communities, to decide for themselves how they feel.

A spokesperson for Yukon University declined an interview with CBC.

"We aren't, you know, defined by one thing that we have thought or said in the past," Fraser said.

"Perhaps it is an opportunity to initiate and grow and strengthen these relationships with Indigenous communities and and see how an academic institution, see how Yukon University, can work with Indigenous communities and really advance ... Indigenous-led research."