Abstract: A Colonial Legacy of Cultural and Epistemic Genocide: Limited Education Access, Family Dislocation and Premature Death of Indigenous Youth in Northern Ontario, Canada (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

A Colonial Legacy of Cultural and Epistemic Genocide: Limited Education Access, Family Dislocation and Premature Death of Indigenous Youth in Northern Ontario, Canada

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Treasury, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Marjorie Johnstone, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
Eunjung Lee, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: While the social work profession declares an allegiance to social justice, the Canadian history of our profession shows a tacit and direct perpetuation of systemic violence against Indigenous people. We believe that the profession should actively resist by documenting wrong-doing, both historic and current, while actively working on undoing the harm that continues to occur. We focus our attention on the egregious tragedies which have occurred between 2000-2019, where there have been nine deaths of First Nations students aged 14-18 who were all coerced to leave their home communities to attend High school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. We ask why do Indigenous families have to choose between post primary education and leaving home? Is this an example of systemic injustice? What actions and resistance have Indigenous people and their allies including social workers done to undo this injustice?

Method: Drawing on information widely available in the public domain (books, journals, newspapers, websites and reports) we document the nine deaths of Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay and explore the historical and current Canadian context of the educational relocation of Indigenous youth from their rural home locations to urban hubs such as Thunder Bay. We name and describe these youth in order to humanize the tragedies and honor the memory of each victim. Then using Fricker’s (2007) theory of epistemic injustice and Medina’s theory of epistemic resistance we analyse our data to better understand how this structural replication of the injustice of residential schools continues into the present.

Results: We show how forms of epistemic injustice are structurally embedded in education access and in the justice system in Canada. Testimonial injustice where Indigenous family members and caregivers are denied credibility is widespread. Structural identity prejudice is pervasive in the Thunder Bay community and epistemic arrogance, epistemic laziness and close-mindedness are evident throughout the investigations and responses to the tragic deaths. We also identify and discuss examples of epistemic friction promulgated by Indigenous citizens and their non-Indigenous allies in efforts to resist this injustice.

Conclusions and implications: We explore models of social justice and the implications of these for social work practice. We discuss Medina’s (2013) ideas around a robust democracy as an institution which promotes multiperspectivalism where multiple viewpoints and epistemic frictions can trigger awareness of social responsibility and thus activate mechanisms for self-correction. We explore how the social work profession can contribute to social responsibility and Indigenous justice, discussing the work of Indigenous social worker Cindy Blackstock as a current model for this. Medina advocates that the first step in epistemic resistance is to make the epistemic friction visible. It is then from the ensuing discussion that counter stories and alternative perspectives can generate possible solutions. We suggest that we are at a crossroads and that now is an opportunity to generate epistemic friction in an effort to actively see/observe/be with and act on these frictions.