Intimate colonialisms: the material & experienced places of British Columbia’s residential schools

Just some notes from a journal article on BC’s residential schools for background for A5.

BC’s Colonial Education

  • Place & colonialism = place/site/event -> multiple processes which constitute it.
  • BC residential schools located within larger narratives & processes of colonialism.
  • Colonialism = never complete homogenous project. Always comprised of social & political constructs existing between the discursive and the practical.
  • Colonial action in BC = centred on structural processes:
    • geographic incursion
    • destruction of socio-cultural structures
    • imposition of external control
    • requires ideological framework
    • relied on the creation of the ‘Other’ over which colonialists were dominant.
  • Residential schooling founded on Euro-colonial ideological system = Aboriginals needed transformation. Can be traced back to 1620 (New France).
  • Boarding schools focused on:
    • Christianization
    • basic fluency in English/French
    • instilment of European values/morals
    • practice of labouring activities (belief existed that First Nations would be best served in trades, agriculture and “domestic arts”

1876 Indian Act

  • Enforced education of Aboriginal children
    • historical policy goals = protecting, civilizing & assimilating
    • Would only succeed if boarding schools were implemented. Residential schools preferred as this limited contact with families & cultures. Known as “aggressive civilization” (p.2).


  • Place = complex & contested concept
  • Place has intimacy and ‘known-ness’ that the concept of space lacks
  • Place = where “social relations are constituted” (p.3).
  • Place can be generative event: “an active source of presencing [where] within its close embrace, things get located and begin to happen” (p.3).
  • “… the body is the most intimate of places where simultaneously embodying crucial sites of political, economic and cultural struggles” (p.3).
  • BC residential schools & bodies of FN children = places within broader colonial narratives = multidirectional & permeable sites nested within larger spatial colonial projects.

Intimate Places of Colonialism: Residential Schools in BC

Residential schools in BC operated between 1861 and 1984.

  • 9 operated by Roman Catholic Church
  • 9 operated by United/Methodist/Anglican Churches
  • Operated within a clear assimilativist policy framework.
  • Schools were built to have a large, imposing structure in order to convey authority

Far then from functioning as mere containers through which colonial narratives were delivered, residential school buildings and grounds were colonial geographies in which First Nations students were enveloped. The buildings ensured First Nations students, from the moment they set eyes upon the places of their ‘education’, were spatially disoriented in a place designed to exclude and expunge Indigeneity.

De Leeuw, 2007: 3

BC residential schools had a certain commonality:

  • bifurcated in design = gender division -> created a further disconnect between school and home lives
  • central door and steps act as a stage and backdrop for lines of First Nations students descending stairs into a front row of Euro-colonial teachers, nuns & priests (photographic evidence).
  • Photos emphasize the possibility of First Nations children transforming into the ‘non-Indigenous’ subjects.
  • Residential schools situated in cleared lands in contrast to ‘uncivilized wilderness’ which surrounds the grounds. Colonial discourse = (Euro-colonial) civility & progress with settled & agriculturally managed lands and savagery & regression (Indigenousness) with unaltered & undomesticated lands.
  • Schools’ interiors also similar: long, straight hallways, large open areas that facilitated supervision and control. Students were always within monitoring and colonial gaze of staff.
  • Most intimate places = bodies of FN children
    • Photographed “‘before’ the educational (cultural transformation) process with long hair, unwashed faces … and ‘savage’ accoutrements”.
    • Photographed “‘after’ the educational (cultural transformation) process with shorn hair, scrubbed skin, surrounded by accoutrements of civility … e.g. pot plants”.
    • Bodies were places into which “colonial project physically asserted itself through forced eating rituals, discipline & punishment … assault and impregnation” (p.4).
    • Colonialism also extended to the First Nations’ children’s thoughts, perspectives and memories -> transformation of thought and spirit.
    • Teaching pedagogy revolved around “the whole child, body and soul, intellect and will, sense, imagination and emotions” (p.5).
    • “… place as gendered and segregated functioned within residential schools to separate families and erode familial ties, furthering the colonial goals of assimilating and transforming Aboriginal peoples”. (p.6).
    • The Euro-colonial vision for Aboriginal women was one of Victorian domesticity.

In Place Resistances: Aboriginal Students Respond to British Columbia’s Residential Schools

The First Nations students resisted colonialism by using the very places that the colonial project had put in place to subordinate them, i.e. set fire to dorms, broke bounds, pulled carrots, spoke their Native language and performed Indian dances.


De Leeuw, S. (2007) ‘Intimate colonialisms: the material and experienced places of British Columbia’s residential schools’ In: The Canadian Geographer 51 (3) At: (Accessed  17/01/2020).

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