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Setting Canadian History Right?: A Response to Ken Coates’ ‘Second Thoughts about Residential Schools’

Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby

As two young historians of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School System – one finishing her PhD, the other currently in his second postdoctoral fellowship – we were wary when we saw Ken Coates’ recent opinion piece in the Dorchester Review.[1] At a first glance, the title, in particular, had us worried: “Second Thoughts about Residential Schools” brought to mind Thomas Flanagan’s misguided monograph First Nations? Second ThoughtsThough deeply concerned at what lay ahead, Coates is an historian we both respect a great deal, so, from our computers in Alberta and Ontario, we read on.

The commentary itself was clearly written to spark a debate. Like many of the editorials that fill Canadian newspapers, it is written in a conversational style without footnotes or references and – more importantly – it attempts to challenge what Coates’ sees as hegemonic narratives characterizing the study of Indian residential schools. And given that the online version of the article (like every page on the Dorchester Review website) is flanked by quotes from David Frum proclaiming that the journal is “Setting Canadian history right,” the essay’s ambition to upend the sacred cows of the Canadian historical profession, itself, are immediately apparent.