In A National Crime, the eviscerating examination of the residential school system in Canada, historian John S. Milloy writes, “the [residential school] system is not someone else’s history, nor is it just a footnote […] or chapter, in Canadian history. It is our history, our shaping of the “new world”; it is our swallowing of the land and its First Nations peoples and spitting them out as cities and farms and hydroelectric projects and as strangers in their own land and communities.” In other words, the residential school system is not to be understood simply as an aberration of public policy or an isolated historical error; rather it is an inevitable condition of the social and economic forces that demanded the removal of indigenous populations from a vanquished landscape circumscribed by capital and regarded primarily in terms of resources and property. Similarly, Meredith Quartermain’s tragic, and perhaps redemptive, story about the relationship between Hunter, an Aboriginal boy on the run from the cruelties of residential school, and Cora, a white girl with intelligence and ambition beyond the tolerance of her father, in rural depression-era Alberta, presents a circumscribed world.
A description of the “Indian School” or the “faraway school” that Hunter is forced to attend for a year before escaping only takes up a few chapters of the novel, but it constantly hangs in the narrative like the unblinking eyes of a panopticon—“Government men again, looking for more kids”—as both threat and proscription for Hunter and his family. Indeed, the residential school system here can be thought of in term of surveillance. Hunter, along with his fellow “students,” is constantly monitored by an “education” system that primarily sought to “kill the Indian in him and save the man”—to quote directly from a paternalistic Victorian-era report. Education for Hunter, then, is nothing more than indoctrination and denial of his identity. In a visually evocative style found throughout the novel, Quartermain writes: “Miss Winston’s chalk taps and shhhes over the blackboard. What is the fourth commandment? Who is the most important Father? How do you honour him? Who else must you obey? […] God is the most important father. Obey his will. Policemen. Teachers. Priests.”
Of the pair, Cora is the freer of the two—by virtue of her skin colour—but is restrained by the expectations of gender to which her father subscribes. When Cora, intelligent and curious about the world, desires to follow an aunt and go to the University of Toronto, her father responds: “Only hoity toity girls as lives in Toronto go to university. Loretta shoulda got married…” Just as Hunter is expected to submit to an education system designed to wipe out his identity as an indigenous subject, Cora is expected to submit to the will of her father. It’s as if by pairing Cora’s and Hunter’s realities, Quartermain is suggesting the deprivation they both share is of a kind determined by the unjust social and economic conditions of their time. For Cora’s and Hunter’s world, indeed that of our own, is bound by an economic system whose very existence is dependent upon denial—denial of the subjectivity of human beings and denial of the inherent value of the natural world and our connection to it. »
from subTerrain #69: Meat.