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Troubling the Path to Decolonization: Indian Residential School Case Law, Genocide, and Settler Illegitimacy1

  • Leslie Thielen-Wilson (a1)


In this paper, I argue that Indian Residential School (IRS) litigation, and the emphasis on “cultural loss” or genocide, threatened to expose the illegitimacy of Canada’s claim to sovereignty and the settler collective’s occupancy of Indigenous lands today. When settler illegitimacy is brought into view, settler collectives typically respond with violence. In IRS case law, this violence consists of the dehumanization of the Indigenous collective as property. I trace this violence on the part of Canada (government and law) in Blackwater v Plint (1996–2005). I suggest that Canada’s “disturbing defence strategy” in Blackwater likely contributed to Canada’s signing of the 2006–2007 IRS settlement agreement that brought Baxter v Canada to a close. I conclude that settler illegitimacy, genocide, and law’s racialized violence in the present ought to trouble the settler collective’s vision of both decolonization and the role of settler law in decolonization.

Dans cet article, je soutiens que le litige lié aux pensionnats indiens et l’accent qui est mis sur la « perte de la culture » ou le génocide ont menacé de rendre publique le caractère illégitime de la revendication du Canada à la souveraineté et de l’occupation des terres autochtones par la collectivité des colons. Lorsque l’illégitimité des colons est remise en perspective, les collectivités coloniales réagissent typiquement par la violence. Dans la jurisprudence liée aux pensionnats indiens, cette violence se manifeste par une déshumanisation de la collectivité autochtone, celle-ci étant considérée comme propriété. Pour ce qui est du Canada (le gouvernement ainsi que la réglementation), cette violence remonte à Blackwater v Plint (1996–2005). À mon avis, « l’inquiétante stratégie de défense » du Canada dans l’affaire Blackwater a probablement contribué à la signature de la Convention de règlement relative aux pensionnats indiens (2006–2007), menant ainsi à terme l’affaire Baxter v Canada. Je conclus que l’illégitimité des colons, le génocide et la violence raciale jurisprudentielle actuelle devraient remettre en cause la perspective de la collectivité des colons en ce qui a trait à la décolonisation et le rôle du droit de peuplement dans la décolonisation.



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2 Matthew Coon Come, “Canada: They Tried to Destroy Us,” Ottawa Citizen, June 30, 2010, accessed August 1, 2013,

3 See Chrisjohn, Roland, Wasacase, T., Nussey, L., Smith, A., Legault, M., Loiselle, P., and Bourgeois, M., “Genocide and Indian Residential Schooling: The Past is Present,” in Canada and International Humanitarian Law: Peacekeeping and War Crimes in the Modern Era, eds. Wiggers, R. D. and Griffith, A. L. (Halifax: Dalhousie University Press, 2002); Chrisjohn, Roland and Young, Sherri, The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 1997/2006).

4 See the Official Court Website of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2006/2007 (IRSSA), accessed June 20, 2013,

5 Blackwater v Plint 2001 BCSC 997 SCBC para 4.

6 Justice Esson’s words, WRB v Plint [2003] BCJ No 2783, BCCA 2003 Dec 10 BCJR 60045.

7 Cloud v Canada, Court of Appeal for Ontario, [2004] 1203, Docket: C40771 (Cloud). Filed in 1998, Cloud represented 1,400 survivors from the Mohawk IRS in Brantford, Ontario.

8 Cloud 2004, at para 1. See Margaret I. Hall, “Institutional Tort Feasors: Systemic Negligence and the Class Action,” Tort Law Journal 2 (2006): 1–43.

9 Baxter v Canada, affidavit, Charles Baxter Sr and Elijah Baxter et al v Attorney General of Canada, Joint Factum of the Plaintiffs, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, court file no 00-CV-192059CP, July 25, 2003 (Baxter); Baxter v Canada, Charles Baxter Sr and Elijah Baxter et al v Attorney General of Canada et al, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, court file no 00-CV-192059CV, December 15, 2006 (Baxter 2006).

10 See Feldthusen, Bruce, “Civil Liability for Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Residential Schools: The Baker Did It,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 22, no.1 (2007): 6191; Oxaal, Zoe, “‘Removing That Which was Indian From the Plaintiff’: Tort Recovery for Loss of Culture and Language in Residential School Litigation,” Saskatchewan Law Review 68 (2005): 367404.

11 Kathleen Mahoney, “Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement: Is Reconciliation Possible?,” (July 26, 2013): 3, 5, accessed August 1, 2013,

12 Monture-Angus, Patricia, “Standing Against Canadian Law: Naming Omissions of Race, Culture, and Gender,” in Locating Law: Race/class/gender connections, eds. Comack, al. (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999), 93.

13 Ibid., 2. My italics.

14 Haida Nation v British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2004] 3 SCR 511, 2004 SCC73, (Haida).

15 Haida at para 11.

16 Haida at para 17.

17 Ibid. at para 25.

18 John Borrows, Crown and Aboriginal Occupations of Land: A History & Comparison, Report for the Ipperwash Inquiry (October, 15 2005), accessed July 10, 2013, See also: Veracini, Lorenzo, “Settler Collective, Founding Violence and Disavowal: The Settler Colonial Situation,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 29, no. 4 (November 2008): 363–79.

19 This important insight is considered by Ronald Niezen, 2003 Niezen, Ronald,“Culture and the Judiciary: The Meaning of the Culture Concept as a Source of Aboriginal Rights in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 18, no. 2 (2003): 126; and Hutchinson, Celeste, “Reparations for Historical Injustice: Can Cultural Appropriation as a Result of Indian Residential Schools Provide Justification for Aboriginal Cultural Rights?,” Saskatchewan Law Review 70 (2007): 425.

20 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963) (Wretched); Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967) (Black Skin); Razack, Sherene H., introduction to Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society, ed. Razack, S. (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2002).

21 Fanon, Wretched, 40.

22 Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (London: Oxford University Press, 1962). Macpherson claims that Locke’s version of possessive individualism influenced colonization and remains influential in today’s full market capitalism. See also: Mohanram, Radhika, Black Body: Women, Colonialism, and Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Anderson, K., Race and the Crisis of Humanism (New York: Routledge, 2007).

23 Emphasizing the unstable colonial mentality of the colonizer, Fanon states that “it is the settler who brings both the native and the settler into existence” (Wretched, 36).

24 Udo Krautwurst, “What is Settler Colonialism? An Anthropological Meditation on Frantz Fanon’s ‘Concerning Violence,’” History and Anthropology 14, no. 1 (2003): 55–72.

25 Rifkin, Mark, “Indigenizing Agamben: Rethinking Sovereignty in Light of the ‘Peculiar’ Status of Native Peoples,” Cultural Critique 73 (Fall 2009): 90.

26 For an insightful analysis of how Aboriginality as injured undermines the loss of culture claim in Blackwater v Plint, see Blackburn, Carole, “Culture Loss and Crumbling Skulls: The Problematic of Injury in Residential School Litigation,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35, no. 2 (2012): 289307.

27 R v Plint [1995] BCJ No 3060, March 21, 1995.

28 Ibid. at para 69.

29 Ibid. at para 14.

30 Brenner’s 2001 decision apportions seventy-five percent vicarious responsibility to Canada and twenty-five percent to the Church (Blackwater 2001 at para 326). Despite appeals and reversals, this apportionment is upheld in Barney v Canada (Blackwater v Plint), 2005 SCC 58, [2005] SCJ No 59 Docket 30176, October 21 (Barney).

31 A. Watson, “Thinking Property at Rome,” in Slavery & the Law, ed. P. Finkelman (England: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002): 419–36.

32 Blackwater, June1998 at paras 98, 99.

33 Ibid. at para 143.

34 Blackwater 2001 at para 254.

35 Blackwater June 1998 at para 109; Blackwater 2001 at paras 419–20.

36 McLachlin CJ, Barney at para 20, supra note 30.

37 WRB v Plint [2003] BCJ No 2783, BCCA 2003 Dec 10 BCJR 60045 at para 28.

38 Barney at para 50. Relying on the slippery wording of (the defendant Canada’s) Indian Act, McLachlin CJ notes that the Indian Act uses the word “may” as in, “The Minister may provide for . . .” and thus, “The Indian Act falls far short of creating a mandatory duty to ensure the health and safety of children in residential schools.”

39 Blackwater 2001 at paras 38–56.

40 Ibid. at paras 666, 699, 700.

41 Ibid. at paras 20, 24, 450.

42 Blackwater 2001 at paras 15–17.

43 Schaffer, K. and Smith, S., Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Rifkin, “Indigenizing Agamben,” supra note 25.

44 Blackwater 2001 at para 690.

45 Ibid. at paras 663, 669.

46 See Blackburn, “Culture Loss and Crumbling Skulls,” supra note 26.

47 Esson J allows MJ’s appeal and orders a new trial on the grounds that Brenner may have overlooked evidence and interpreted evidence in an unreasonably unfavorable way. WRB v Plint [2003] BCJ No 2783, BCCA 2003 Dec 10 BCJR 60045 at paras 91–99.

48 Rifkin, “Indigenizing Agamben,” supra note 25.

49 P. Barnsley, “Alberni Indian Residential School Trial Decision ‘Shocks,’” Windspeaker News, July 10, 2001, accessed August 1, 2013,

50 Blackwater 2001 at para 458.

51 Blackwater 2001 at para 334.

52 Blackwater 2001 at para 388.

53 Ibid. at paras 445, 446, 449.

54 Ibid. at paras 835, 847.

55 Blackwater 2001 at paras 440–41.

56 Ibid. at paras 436, 437.

57 Ibid. at para 454.

58 Ibid. at para 457.

59 Ibid. at para 519.

60 Ibid. at para 522.

61 Brenner awarded damages in the range of $10,000–$20,000 for three of the plaintiffs and $85,000–$145,000 for the other three plaintiffs.

62 Factum of the Interveners Barney v Canada (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), The Native Women’s Association of Canada, and Disabled Women’s Network of Canada), April 23, 2005 at para 3.

63 Barney at para 57.

64 Barney at para 61.

65 Ibid. at para 60.

66 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387409.

67 Alfred, Taiaiake, “Restitution is the Real Pathway to Justice for Indigenous Peoples,” in Response, Responsibility and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, ed. Younging, G., Dewar, J., and De Gagne, M. (Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009), accessed July 10, 2013

68 Corntassel, Jeff, “Re-envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable Self-determination,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (2012): 86101.

69 Tuck, Eve and Wayne Yang, K., “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1 (2012): 140.

70 Coulthard, Glen S., “Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the ‘Politics of Recognition’ in Canada,” Contemporary Political Theory 6 (2007): 453, 454.

1 I thank Sherene Razack for support and comments on an earlier version of this paper and the CJLS reviewers and editors for suggestions that helped me to improve this paper.

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