Residential School Gothic: Genre and Public Memory in 21st Century Canada

Residential School Gothic: Genre and Public Memory in 21st Century Canada
Speaker: Jennifer Henderson # Carleton University
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Date and Time
9th Mar 2018 16:30 - 9th Mar 2018 17:30
Project Room (1.06) at 50 George Square

This is a co-badged event between School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures and the Centre of Canadian Studies

A drinks reception will be held after the seminar.


I will present from my research on genres of public discourse in 21st century Canada, focusing on the genre I call “residential school gothic.” The context for the emergence of this genre is the historical conjuncture of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process with a broadly neoliberal political culture. The very belated and selective public recognition of Canada’s settler-colonial foundations has coincided with a normative anti-statism and corollary thematization of the powers of self-reliant individuals, families, and communities. Under these conditions, the church-run, state-funded Indian residential school system, an assimilatory apparatus operated for more than 150 years, has been singled out as a historical wrong, an event of wrongdoing, and made to serve as a synecdoche for what is unrepresentable about settler-colonial social relations. I argue that some of the constraints on public reckoning with the past and present of settler colonialism in Canada have to do with features of the neoliberal imaginary as it makes sense of the past and as it conceives of injustice. When it comes to imagining the harm of colonialism, this imaginary finds expression in the tropes and iconography of gothic narrative, particularly in its original, late 18th-century form which articulated a liberal and Protestant critique of tyrannical power and the suffocating hold of the pre-modern. The trope of the incarcerating enclosure is at the centre of this gothic mode and it is central, too, in the iconography of contemporary residential schools recognition. The residential school, as it is constructed for public memory, signifies within deeply sedimented discursive terrain, invoking classically gothic sites and more recent institutions associated with state power. What happens when the gothic is the vehicle for public processing of historical injustice and how does this narrative mode make sense of what has been called cultural genocide, in particular? To explore these questions, I turn to recent monuments, feature and opinion journalism, and film.

Jennifer Henderson is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. She is the co-editor of the collections, Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress (2013) and Trans/acting Culture, Writing, and Memory: Essays in Honour of Barbara Godard (2013), and the author of Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada (2003). Her work is positioned at the intersection of social theory, history, and literary/cultural studies and examines questions of liberal governmentality, settler colonialism, and genres of public discourse. Recent articles and chapters include “Residential Schools and Opinion-Making in the Era of Traumatized Subjects and Taxpayer-Citizens,”  Journal of Canadian Studies (2015), “The Resilient Child, Human Development, and the Post-Political,” Biosocieties (2015, co-author), “The Camp, the School, and the Child: Discursive Exchange and (Neo)liberal Axioms in the Culture of Redress,” Reconciling Canada (2013), “Transparency, Spectatorship, Accountability: Indigenous Families in Settler-State Post-Democracies,” English Studies in Canada (2012), and “Gothicism, Catholicism, and Sexuality in Kiss of the Fur Queen,Unsettled Remains. From 1993 to 2002, Jennifer edited the bilingual journal, Tessera.