Welcome to The Human Factor, a podcast that puts the social in science.
I’m Cheryl Croucher. The Human Factor explores the impact scientific inquiry has on our daily lives and our decision making.
This is Episode 5 of The Human Factor.
My guest is Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser, an historian and assistant professor at the University of Alberta.
Crystal is Gwichya Gwich’in and her doctoral research focused on the stories of survivors of residential schools in the Northwest Territories. Since the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, Crystal has been interviewed by media around the world.
That conversation coming up on The Human Factor.
Time: 37:47 Minutes
Gwichya Gwich’in Scholar Helps World Understand Canada’s Residential School Legacy
I’ve been following the academic career of Crystal Gail Fraser since we met in 2013. Crystal is the first Gwichya Gwich’in woman to receive a PhD in history from the University of Alberta.
During the nine years she worked on her doctorate, this amazing young woman also became a mother and undertook two international fellowships – one In Scotland and the other in New Zealand.
Crystal’s PhD research involved 75 oral histories from survivors of the residential and day schools in Inuvik. That dissertation will soon be published as a book called “By Strength, We Are Still Here”
Not long after earning her doctorate in the fall of 2019, Crystal was hired by the University of Alberta as an assistant professor. She has a cross appointment with the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of History and Classics.
Because of her knowledge and insight into the residential school experience, she has been interviewed by media around the world. But it is a topic that takes its toll on the researcher.
Cheryl Croucher (CC) interviews Crystal Gail Fraser, PhD (CGF)
CC: CRYSTAL, IT’S A COUPLE OF YEARS SINCE WE LAST SPOKE AND AT THAT TIME YOU HAD JUST FINISHED YOUR PhD. WHAT EXACTLY WAS YOUR PhD LOOKING AT? I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU SPENT SOME TIME IN THE NORTH WORKING ON IT.
CGF: That’s correct. So, my PhD was a community engaged project. That was very important to me right from the beginning to work with Indigenous folks in my home community of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and more broadly in the Beaufort Delta.
I was interested in the history of Indian residential schools in the north, particularly because I am an intergenerational survivor. So, my mother was institutionalized at Grollier Hall in Inuvik and then my grandmother at Immaculate Conception Indian Residential School in Aklavik.
And so really a PhD in history means generally that the student has to spend a lot of time in the archives working with documents and written sources. But the problem with those archival documents is that generally they are written by state officials, which are usually white men, in this case, generally in Ottawa with the Department of Indian Affairs, or in the north the Department of Mines and Resources. Later it was called Northern Affairs and National Resources. And so, a lot of bureaucratic stuff. But then also you have missionary perspectives, which is generally also a European white male perspective.
So, my intention was really to let Indigenous peoples tell their own stories. I wanted to include as many perspectives in my work as I could. I wanted to get to know lived experiences of survivors who were institutionalized. And so, my project really ended up being a thesis on strengths and it looked at the nature of residential schooling in the Inuvik region, which like the rest of the country was a part of a system of genocide. These institutions were carceral, forced attendance or as I call it, institutionalization.
But really what I tried to focus on is how children at these institutions survived, what they did for fun. How it is that despite all of the awful things, they made friendships. They engaged in extracurricular activities and sports. Yes, so in a nutshell that was my work.
I’m currently editing it into a book manuscript and that will be through the University of Manitoba Press. The work won the John Bullen Prize through the Canadian Historical Association for the best PhD thesis at any Canadian university in that year (2020). So, that was a huge honour that my community and also my team of mentors were honoured by.
CC: CONGRATULATIONS! THAT’S QUITE AN ACCOMPLISHMENT. AND YOU’RE VERY ACCOMPLISHED IN A SENSE, TOO, BECAUSE FROM YOUR COMMUNITY, YOU’RE THE FIRST ONE TO ACTUALLY GET A PhD.
CGF: Yes. So, that was a really special moment in the sense that, you know, from a Gwichya Gwich’in perspective, the first western trained historian to have a PhD. And I have to qualify that because I actually come from a community of historians who all deserve PhD’s in their own right. But, yes, that was very exciting. And one of the reasons why I was so very interested in finding work at the University of Alberta is because geographically we’re the closest big institution to the north. So, in that way, and through applying for funding and grants I also hope to support my community a little bit that way, but also stay in touch with them for future projects.
CC: ONCE YOU RECEIVED YOUR PhD AFTER DOING THIS INCREDIBLE WORK, WHAT DID YOU END UP DOING AT THE UNIVERSITY? BECAUSE THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE, YOU WERE ACTUALLY WAITING TO HEAR WHETHER YOU GOT THIS NEW POSITION OR NOT.
CGF: That’s right. Yes. So, I defended my thesis in September 2019. I then interviewed for a position cross appointed between History and Native Studies in November. And I was able to start a tenure track assistant professor job on January 1st, 2020, at the University of Alberta and that was just amazing.
My semester was interrupted, my first semester ever as a faculty member was interrupted by COVID. And then, of course, very quickly overnight, we shifted to online teaching, which was absolutely new to a lot of us and that was a very difficult and also uncertain time. We didn’t know what COVID was, so being very, very cautious.
But my position at the U of A is really three parts. These faculty jobs you have your teaching and you have your research and then you have your administration or service duties. So, for the last two years, I’ve been learning what all of that looks like, and it’s been quite enjoyable. There’s a lot of things on the job that we aren’t trained for in our PhD and so we just jump in and learn the ropes and it’s been great.
CC: OVER THE LAST YEAR, THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF ATTENTION ON THE DISCOVERY OF GRAVES AROUND THE RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS AND THAT SEEMS TO BE SOMETHING THAT YOU’VE TAKEN ON BY THE BULLHORNS, I GUESS. GIVE ME AN IDEA OF WHAT IT IS THAT YOU’RE LOOKING AT AND WHAT THE, I GUESS, THE FEELING WAS WHEN THESE GRAVES WERE FIRST DISCOVERED IN KAMLOOPS BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2021. BECAUSE YOU REALLY BECAME IN A WAY SOMEONE THAT THE MEDIA WOULD GO TO, TO GET SOME SORT OF EXPLANATION.
CGF: That’s right. So, it definitely has been an intense ten months or so. On May 27th, 2021, Kamloops announced approximately 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the former site of the Indian Residential School there. I mean, on the one hand, there was this sense of shock that I think was really felt across Canada. That Canadians for the very first time were confronted with this very visceral, uncomfortable information about Indian residential schools and about the effects that they actually had. So that was on the one hand.
But on the other hand, this wasn’t huge news to Indigenous people. You know, we’ve long had family members, ancestors, who were institutionalized, who died at residential school, who didn’t come home, who went missing. And so, this was news, but our families and communities have been grappling with this for decades. So I think that’s important to note.
And I mean, as someone who Is Indigenous and also an intergenerational residential school survivor, but also somebody who is an academic, I think that was one of the reasons why the media requests started to come in and I made myself available for that.
I also feel like I am a public scholar, and even though historians, not all historians, embrace that rule, I find it’s very important to talk publicly and educate broader Canadians on this.
So, for sure, a very busy time. Between May 27th and September 30th, the new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I had over a hundred media engagements across the world really. You know, waking up in the middle of the night to go on a radio show in China and one in England and speaking with journalists in India and Croatia and Columbia, this has really gained international attention.
And in some of those interviews and also in some educational presentations I did, we really covered many different topics from how Indigenous children died while institutionalized. How the truth of that has not been exposed at a national level. Why it is that Canadians are so shocked by this. Some even denied it as false news. You know, conversations about canceling Canada Day, about demanding an apology from the Pope, all of these conversations have happened since the news of these unmarked graves were shared.
Indeed, since then, several other First Nations have taken on this work. There has been funding made available from the federal and provincial governments. That’s another conversation about how to meet those deadlines and what that entails. Definitely in recent months we also have seen more announcements of unmarked graves, but really, I’m not sure if we’ll ever have a full or comprehensive number. In part for a couple of reasons, because in a way, a First Nation or Indigenous community can do this work and not release those numbers and then additionally, we will never actually know the number of children who died at these institutions because just with technology, ground penetrating radar is by all means not perfect. Many communities will choose not to excavate those areas. And then, additionally, there were other ways in which children’s bodies were disposed of.
CC: PERHAPS I COULD ASK YOU ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION BECAUSE CERTAINLY CANADIANS FOR THE MOST PART WERE SHOCKED BY THE DISCOVERY OF THESE UNMARKED GRAVES. BUT YOU HAVE SPOKEN WITH PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. WHY WERE PEOPLE IN OTHER COUNTRIES SO INTERESTED? AND WHAT IS YOUR SENSE OF THEIR OVERALL FEELING ABOUT THIS NEWS?
CGF: Yes. Those conversations were very interesting and eye-opening. On the one hand, they really confirmed the perception of Canada as a benevolent country. We hear about our reputation as being happy and polite, and we say please and thank you a lot. And then, of course, the bigger military reputation of being peacekeepers that has evolved over a number of decades. And really, this assumption that Canada is a part of the free world and it is goodness, basically. And so, I think those assumptions were definitely challenged by the news of unmarked graves and by the news that would happened here was actually genocide.
And I think that people Internationally were interested for a number of reasons because they had never heard this news about Canada before because globally, we are becoming more connected about conversations about trauma and violence. I’ve seen that in the last number of years. Also, I think in this era of new forms of globalism and social media and being connected, that there is a willingness to talk about how we’re the same or how our struggles are the same.
And I say that because these conversations really made me learn more about international contexts. For instance, I had a conversation with a PhD student who was undertaking work about the Holocaust and certain connections were made there about in Germany and other European countries in suburb developments that unmarked graves of forced internment camps or labor camps were being uncovered through construction projects and so the connections were made there.
I spoke with somebody from Ireland who had made the connection about young women who were unwed and pregnant and how they were forcibly institutionalized and had their children removed from them, and also placed in unmarked graves.
And other conversations, too, about the extent of Indian residential schooling. That’s what it was called in Canada, but in the United States it was called Indian boarding school. There were forms of residential schooling in Australia, in India, in Norway. And so, I think as we come together and share our histories and stories, we’re starting to find that we have more of a global experience of colonialism.
Additionally, on July 1st on Canada Day 2021, the Canadian Historical Association published a letter on its website saying that what happened in Canada was genocide. That it meets all of the criteria that historians have really made an error in not calling it such to date.
And so, that is definitely on the discipline. I have seen that in history books where historians talk about assimilation. They talk about integration. They talk about “preparing Indigenous children for their immersion into a white settler society”. That kind of language is definitely used in archival sources, you know, integration, assimilation. But really what we need to do is look at the system over the last 100, or 150 years. See how it evolved. See how it was implemented but then also take a hard look at the consequences of that. So the fact that it is genocide prompted international calls for Canada to be taken to the International Criminal Court on that. And so, I think there was a lot of activism at play.
I think there was a sense of justice. Of course, that was supported by the good work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And so, I think overall we’re just having a lot more of these harder conversations and there’s more room for survivors and intergenerational survivors to speak.
CC: CERTAINLY FROM A CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE, RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS AND WHAT HAPPENED WITH ABORIGINAL PEOPLES, WE WERE NEVER TAUGHT THAT. AND SO IT IS THIS HIDDEN HISTORY. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON OVERCOMING THAT?
CGF: Yes. That’s a great point. So, a whole part of history that we have not been taught and definitely that was my experience, too.
I was born in 1980 and this was not a part of my high school curriculum whatsoever. It was also not a part of my university curriculum. I did a whole BA in history and I was not confronted with residential schools once. It was a culmination of my family having been institutionalized, my interest, that is really where I am today. But for other people that may not be the case.
And so, I think that there has been there’s been a lot of great work that’s been done over the years. We have the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1996 called RCAP. Then in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published its work and wrapped up in 2015.
All of those volumes are online and free for download. We also have the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, which is the big archive to house all of these documents and they just have a really fantastic website.
Additionally, I have co-authored with Sara Komarnisky 150 Acts of Reconciliation, which is on the ActiveHistory.ca website. That was in response to Canada 150, celebrating 150 years of colonialism in this country. What Sara and I really tried to do is to get reconciliation a part of everyday life for Canadians, because we had found that the TRC’s 94 Calls To Action were fantastic but they are mostly geared towards government organizations, churches, and we wanted something that everyday people could do at home with their families or in the workplace. So, that’s been really successful and that has a lot of linked information.
One of the acts is to read these stories to your children. CBC has a great book list for kids. So, there’s that. But there’s also all kinds of new memoirs that are coming out. There are older ones. Specifically, My Name is Seepeetza is an older memoir of a child who was at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. There is Augie Merasty’s book (The Education of Augie Merasty) which also has a ton of humor in it. And so, I think there are a lot of resources out there now. I was just Chapters a couple of weeks ago and they had a whole bookend on Indigenous authors so I think that the information is out there. It’s just a matter of doing it.
Like many other things, sometimes we don’t do things because it makes us uncomfortable. And if you have grown up as a Canadian, probably non-indigenous, probably middle-class, haven’t been confronted with these kinds of histories, that process can be very uncomfortable.
It can raise a lot of questions. And particularly in relation to unmarked graves, the folks I saw struggling with this were asking very deep questions that are related to their identity. Who am I? Where did my family come from? Was there anyone in my family who worked at these Indian residential schools? I have a great-grandfather who was a member of the RCMP. Did he take small children away? Did I vote for a politician who implemented oppressive measures? But then also, how am I contributing to the marginalization of Indigenous peoples today? Maybe I drive by a reserve every single day yet I know nothing about the people who live there.
So, I think that this kind of work evokes a lot of questions that you need to be in the position where you can start that kind of work. And I mean, once you open those doors, you can’t unlearn things that you know. You know what you know. And so going forward, I really think that the bigger question is, who is Canada? What do we want Canada to look like? How do we define Canada?
CC: WITH THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION, THERE WAS A FIGURE THAT WAS AMASSED OF WHAT THEY COULD FIND OUT AT THE TIME THROUGH RESEARCH AS TO HOW MANY MISSING CHILDREN. WHAT WAS THE FIGURE THAT THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION CAME UP WITH?
CGF: Well, it was really interesting because I actually saw a few different figures that media were drawing upon in the early days but the figure that I have been working with was about 4,100. The TRC was able to confirm those deaths mostly through archival research and so written documentation that was found in an official archive. And that’s problematic in a lot of ways,
The TRC itself had said that there are likely thousands and thousands more deaths. But within the scope and the mandate and the funding that the TRC had, it was only possible to look at a portion of the archival records. And so, I think it’s important to note here that the TRC itself had always said that was a conservative number.
I think it’s important to note that many of these student deaths were not recorded in the archives. For instance, in my research at an Alberta Indian residential school, I have found written documentation that at any signs of first illness that missionaries would send a child back to their home community if they suspected they were going to be gravely ill. Because if a child was returned and passed away at home or in a hospital, then that death would not be attributed to that residential school.
So, there’s that, but there are also other ways that children “mysteriously died”. Those sometimes were not put in the archival record at the discretion of the principal or the administrator or even the Indian agent.
There are also accounts of students taking their own lives because they were institutionalized. And particularly at Catholic schools, that child then would have committed a sin against the Catholic church. And, even if it was an unmarked graveyard, chances are that their body would not have been placed even in a graveyard associated with that church because of suicide.
And so, I think this is complicated. I had just mentioned Western science and technology. And in the beginning of our interview, I had said that many indigenous families and peoples have known these histories for a long time. I think it’s probably worth noting here that what actually makes this believable, what actually makes this news, is that we have western science now backing up these histories.
It wasn’t just good enough that these were our experiences, that we lost family members, that we carry these stories forward in our oral tradition, but really, we needed confirmation from western science for this.
CC: WE’RE HERE IN THE EDMONTON AREA. THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA IS IN EDMONTON. AND EVEN JUST IN THIS CLOSE VICINITY, THERE ARE A NUMBER OF CEMETERIES OR GRAVE SITES RELATED TO THE RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS. WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT WHAT IS IN THE EDMONTON AREA?
CGF: Yes. I will tell you what I know, which is not everything. But, of course, over the years, we have heard many things about the Camsell Indian Hospital which is in the Westmount area on the north side.
That was an Indian sanitorium which mostly took in Indigenous patients with tuberculosis, many from the north who were institutionalized there for years at a time. And there’s a lot of scholarly research now that suggests that Indian hospitals ran a lot like Indian residential schools. And so, I know that the site of the Camsell has been under scrutiny for several years, even longer than a decade, and there have been calls for radar work in that area to find possibly unmarked graves.
The question for me is the Camsell Hospital was a very busy place and had many, many patients. Tuberculosis was also an epidemic in the north. It still is. And so, quite a few of the patients who were flown from the north, there was no room for them at the Camsell. And so, they were often transferred to the Aberhart Hospital at the University of Alberta.
Aberhart was a big TB hospital and it still is, actually, it’s still runs to this day. It still has a TB program, and nobody really talks about the Aberhart.
And so, questions that I have are, how did the Aberhart run? Did it run like the Camsell? Where did the bodies go from Aberhart? Were they transferred back to the Camsell? Were they returned to the families like the bodies of white settlers would be? So quite a few questions.
A part of the problem with this research is that these are all classified as medical records and so, it’s extremely hard to get access to medical records, even if folks have passed on. That has actually been a consistent problem for family members who wish to research what actually happened to their loved ones, is that they can’t gain access.
And then additionally, if they do gain access, it is very hard to find your relatives because particularly, if they still had an Indigenous name, they were often given a new Anglicised name when they were hospitalized.
CC: HOW DO YOU AS A RESEARCHER IN THIS VERY TRAUMATIC AREA OF OUR HISTORY, HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF GROUNDED?
CGF: That’s a great question because the nature of this work is very difficult.
I mean, as someone who is an intergenerational survivor, like, in a sense, we don’t really ever step away from this work. This is who we are. This matters to our family. It matters to our communities. We talk a lot about it. And so, I think that with all of the media work, definitely I had to do a lot of self-care around that.
You know, that means taking time off. That means being in the outdoors. That means meditating and eating healthy fulsome foods, and just giving yourself some grace. You know, practice gratitude. I think that that all has been very important. Burnout is high, and I know colleagues who have also spoken out on the media are also feeling that.
And so, I think that having your network of supporters, for me, I have a group of really fantastic women elders that I can talk to about anything. All of that stuff is really important,
But it’s easy to get overshadowed in the hustle and bustle because these stories are so important. Because these histories are still so hidden. Because people don’t know. You kind of take it on yourself to educate people because I’m raising a daughter who is Gwichya Gwich’in and I want her world to be a better place than mine.
So, it has a lot of meaning, but you also have to practice on when to step back, on when to hand the reins to someone else, on when to just say no. And that definitely has been a learning process, a steep learning curve. Yes.
CC: WHAT OTHER THINGS DO YOU HAVE ON YOUR RESEARCH AGENDA THAT YOU ALSO WANT TO LOOK AT?
CGF: Yes. So, as I had mentioned, the PhD is going to be coming out in book form.
I had always wondered, am I a historian of residential schools? Is that what I’m going to be doing for my career? Am I a historian of the north? Am I a historian of Indigenous people more broadly? I still think I’m figuring that out.,
I mean, for sure residential schools is always going to be an area of interest for me. And I think that if I do take any new direction, it will be this medical history route. And so, I mentioned the Camsell and the Aberhart.
But I also want to know and connect with the experiences of my ancestors. And so, what it was like for my great-grandmother Julienne The’dahcha or Julienne Andre. I want to know what it was like for her to have children. I want to know about midwives. I want to know about the state bringing in hospitals and western health care and what that meant for our people.
And I want to know about the experiences of my grandma having 10 children, one of them born in a canoe at our fish camp. So, I think this connection about healthcare and about Indigenous practices and about how we relied on the land for medicines and also about women’s experiences.
But then, of course, like many of our older, more ancient histories, all of these things were interrupted by residential schools and colonization and the theft of lands. And so, that’s what I’m currently thinking about a research project.
But I also want to be community engaged. I want to do research that is useful and helpful to communities. And so, this is all to say that I will be in consultation with my elders and my mentors and community to see what they want, to see what is doable in this time of COVID because that has been a huge interruption, not being able to travel.
Yes. So, we’ll just see what’s possible.
And Cheryl, I hope to talk to you again one day soon about what that new research project may be, because we’ve talked about research over the years, so yes, I think that’s great.
CC: THANK YOU, CRYSTAL, SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS TODAY. I THINK ON THE ONE HAND IT’S TRAUMATIC AND IT’S TROUBLING. BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, I GUESS IT’S THE IDEA THAT WE’RE BETTER OFF WITH THE TRUTH SO THAT WE CAN MOVE FORWARD.
CGF: Exactly. It’s been my pleasure.
CC: THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
Crystal Gail Fraser, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta. She holds a cross appointment with the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of History and Classics.