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Settler-Humanitarianism: Healing the Indigenous Child-Victim

  • Krista Maxwell (a1)

Victims of colonial, Indigenous child-removal policies have attracted public expressions of compassion from Indigenous and settler-state political leaders in Canada since the 1990s. This public compassion has fueled legal and political mechanisms, leveraging resources for standardized interventions said to “heal” these victims: cash payments, a truth-telling forum, therapy. These claims to healing provide an entry-point for analyzing how and why the figure of the Indigenous child-victim, past and present, is morally and politically useful for settler-states and their public cultures. I use the formulation of “settler-humanitarianism” to express how liberal interventions of care and protection, intended to ameliorate Indigenous suffering, align with settler-colonialism's enduring goal of Indigenous elimination (Wolfe 2006). Removal of Indigenous children was integral to the late nineteenth-century formation of the Canadian and Australian settler-states. Missionaries and colonial administrators represented these practices as humanitarian rescue from depraved familial conditions. Settler-humanitarians have long employed universalizing moral registers, such as “idleness” and “neglect,” to compel state interventions into Indigenous families. More recently, “trauma” has emerged as a humanitarian signifier compelling urgent action. These settler-humanitarian registers do political work. Decontextualized representations of Indigenous children as victims negate children as social actors, obscure the particularities of how collective Indigenous suffering flows from settler-colonial dispossession, and oppose children's interests with those of their kin, community, and nation. I analyze how and why Aboriginal healing as settler-humanitarianism has been taken up by many Indigenous leaders alongside settler-state agents, and examine the ongoing social and political effects of the material and discursive interventions it has spawned.

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