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Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples

By Constance Backhouse, Cynthia E. Milton, Margaret Kovach, and Adele Perry, eds

September 13, 2022

Review By Andrew Nurse

Royally Wronged carries a heavy burden. It is intended as part of the Royal Society of Canada’s “reckoning” with its own complicity in colonialism. It is intentionally organized as a response to Dr. Cindy Blackstock’s 2015 correspondence that urged the RSC to live up to the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action (12-6). Royally Wronged, its editors note, is a “first step” in what promises to be a wider and more diverse process (5). “This volume,” its introduction explains, “[…] emerged from an open call for papers that the [RSC’s] Task Force [on Truth and Reconciliation, established in the wake of Dr. Blackstock’s communication], issued to all members.” The call “requested papers that would explore the historical contributions of the RSC and of Canadian scholars to the production of ideas and policies that underpin the disastrous interaction of settlers, especially white ones, with Indigenous peoples” (5-6). The result is a collection of twelve essays complemented by a “Foreword” written by Blackstock, an editorial introduction crafted by Constance Backhouse and Cynthia E. Milton that reproduces Blackstock’s original letter, a multi-authored memo urging the decolonization of the Academy, a conversational interview with Shain Jackson (whose artwork graces the collection’s cover), and an editorial afterward that draws together the collection’s different themes.  Along with its scholarly apparatus, the collection runs to 365+ pages. It is evident that a great deal of time, care, and commitment have been put into it.

With all of this in mind, Royally Wronged is a remarkably difficult text to review. What one thinks of it will depend on how one reads it and the ideas and perspectives that frame that reading. Its essays address a broad range of issues, from the institutional history of the RSC to the work of its members (particularly but not exclusively Duncan Campbell Scott), to colonial narratives embedded in Maritime avocational historical writing, to innovative legal and graduate education designed to address colonialism’s cognitive imperialism, among others. In short, there is a lot in this collection which is intended to capture the diverse ways in which westernized knowledge systems constitute a cornerstone of Canadian colonialism as well as suggestive essays that try to sketch directions for responses. On this level, one can express nothing but admiration for this collection, respect for its commitments, and support for its objectives. I am grateful Royally Wronged has been published.

I also found it disappointing. Don’t hear what I am not saying: I am not opposed to the critical interrogation of colonialism. In fact: the opposite. I have been thinking about the reasons for my disappointment and it might be that this text is directed to a different audience. For instance, it might be directed to students or a general readership or the RSC itself. If so, that is the way it is and is not cause for lament. But, for the record, what was disappointing about Royally Wronged was that it did not tell me anything I did not already know or would not otherwise have strongly suspected. At times the collection became repetitive as the same ideas and same facts (relating to RSC history) were repeated in different essays. At other times, authors provided lists of RSC publications and fellows that addressed Indigenous issues but did not really explore those publications and what they tell us about the connections between colonialism and Canadian intellectual life. I was surprised that little time was given to defining colonialism and its various manifestations at the beginning of the collection. And I was surprised by what authors thought were discoveries of importance. I don’t mean to single out any individual author because that would be unfair but Jane Bailey’s otherwise stellar essay on “Confronting ‘Cognitive Imperialism’” is a case in point. I want to give Bailey their due. This essay provides an important and challenging conception of colonialism that pays due respect to the work of Indigenous scholars. I strongly recommend it. But I was also surprised by an analytic confession. Before exploring colonialism, Bailey writes, they “had assumed […] that law could be relatively clearly distinguished from social norms because law was anything that ultimately the state had the power to enforce against me – something that happened mostly in or in the shadow of […] courtrooms.” Further: “I never really stopped to consider the very definition of law by which I abided played a fundamental role in [colonialism]” (236-7).

Bailey is a professor of law at the University of Ottawa and so I found myself asking: why would one make those assumptions? I am not a lawyer, and I would not make them. In fact, I’d begin from the exact opposite assumptions and not because I have any special insight into the operation of the law. Critical studies of the law that show close connections to social norms, on-going controversies and social conflicts enacted in the courtroom, and which explore the ways in which legal processes (indeed the very definition of law itself) are bound to colonialism, racialized public life, marginalization, and inequality are not new. There is not space here to get into the details, but these ideas are foundational to studies of colonialism, dispossession, treaty rights, the law against the potlatch, legalized Indigenous identities, and a host of other matters. I was left wondering: what does it mean that Canadian legal education appears to have ignored conclusions embedded in critical scholarship stretching back a generation?

Finally, one tricky but important matter. I recognize that the editors and authors were producing this collection as this story evolved but Carrie Bourassa – identified as part of a “cohort” of emerging Indigenous scholars connected to the RSC (308) – is not Indigenous. The final report for the University of Saskatchewan was released after Royally Wronged had gone to press and the timeline on addressing Bourassa’s situation might have been just too tight to address in text. Still, what we end up with is a text the replicates potential Settler appropriation of Indigenous identity and that issue should have been addressed in some way. At the least, it should be acknowledged on McGill-Queen’s web page for the text or with some sort of brief note included with the book as it shipped. This might have been difficult, but would it have been too much to ask of a collection that is looking to contribute to decolonization?

Let reiterate my gratitude to Royally Wronged’s editors and authors before ending on one further critical note. I am glad this collection has been published. The critical note is this: Royally Wronged implicitly raises a more fundamental issue that could be addressed head on: can we graft decolonization onto colonial institutions. I don’t know and I’ll defer to others who know more than I do. The argument this text seems to implicitly make is “yes” and an assessment of the complexity of this issue might be next on the RSC’s agenda. I don’t know, but I hope it is.

Publication Information

Constance Backhouse, Cynthia E. Milton, Margaret Kovach, and Adele Perry, eds., Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2021. 365 pp.  $39.95 paper.