Law and Society Panel on Legacies of Colonialism in Indigenous Communities Reply

The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna.

My other favorite panel from the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting was Narratives of Il(legality) in Liminal Indigenous Locations, held Friday. The panel included four very moving, thought-provoking presentations on the ways colonialism and legal and cultural oppression impact North American indigenous communities today.

The first three presentations dealt with legacies of Canada’s residential schools policy, which forcibly removed aboriginal children from their homes and raised them (if you can call it that) in conditions of abuse, deprivation, and denigration.

Carole Blackburn spoke on Blackwater v. Plint (2005), which arose from widespread sexual abuse at one church-run residential school. The government and church were held liable, but liability was mitigated because the court found school officials had no actual knowledge of abuse—despite the fact that several children reported the abuse to police and nurses. Blackburn examines the cultural conditions that made abuse of aboriginal children invisible to the defendants and the court. Lack of “actual knowledge,” she argues, is really a willed “ignorance that requires active dissociation” from injustices committed against the children.

Justice Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice spoke on his experiences as a rotating judge in the Gladue Court that handles sentencing of aboriginal criminal offenders, who are overrepresented in prisons by a factor of seven. While the Court carefully considers mitigating factors specific to aboriginals, Justice Green was very forthcoming about the Court’s limitations. Sentencing, after all, is the “tail end” of the process and earlier interventions are needed. Disparities in crime and imprisonment rates are part of “an inheritance of unbridled colonialism”; they result largely from “cultural genocide” propagated by Canada’s residential schools policy.

Jane McMillan’s paper concerned unintended consequences of the Residential Schools Settlement agreement of 2007, which compensates aboriginal Canadians who can prove they went to a residential school. Part of the claims process requires victims of abuse, many of whom are traumatized and have never spoken of their abuse, to detail their experiences in writing and undergo a hearing in order to receive extra compensation. (The seventeen-page form includes an appalling page of checkboxes listing various acts of sexual abuse and how many times they were done.) This culturally and psychologically insensitive process, while cathartic and healing for some, is for others a re-victimization.

Finally, Ann Tweedy traced the racialized notion of “self-defense” in U.S. jurisprudence to illuminate current problems with Indian sovereignty and gun control. Tweedy argues that stereotypes of Indians as “savage ignobles” (which arise, ironically, from Indian’s own efforts at self-defense against white settlers) have led to a long history of curtailing Indian sovereignty. The result has been widespread lawlessness on reservations due to Indians’ inability (and U.S. Attorneys’ refusal) to effectively prosecute crimes, particularly rape of Indian women by non-Indian men. At the same time, the right to bear arms must be understood in the context of white settlers “defending” themselves against what Justice Kennedy, only a few years ago, called “Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that.”

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