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Review of The Sleeping Giant Awakens: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools, and the Challenge of Conciliation by

The Sleeping Giant Awakens: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools, and the Challenge of Conciliation

by David B. MacDonald

I live in Thunder Bay, the place of the eponymous sleeping giant, Nanabozho, and a location steeped in anti-Indigenous racism and an ongoing legacy of colonial oppression. So, despite being a white settler and thus the privileged party here, I do have to deal with these issues—and like other settler Canadians, I’ve got a tremendous responsibility here. I picked up The Sleeping Giant Awakens: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools, and the Challenge of Conciliation because I was intrigued by David B. MacDonald’s promise to engage with the legacy of residential schools from the perspective of legalist interpretations of genocide. Sure enough, the book remains focused and on-topic, encouraging the reader to think critically about our concept of the Canadian state and Canada’s identity.

The Sleeping Giant Awakens benefits from being hot off the presses from my perspective as a reader in August 2019. It went to print recently enough to mention the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould over the SNC Lavalin affair, for example. So it is incredibly up to date in its discussion of all of these issues, which is important, because while it’s true that successive governments have continued the legacy of colonialist, paternalist attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, it’s worth examining the most recent such examples. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party came to power making big promises regarding a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations and … that has not come to fruition. Not even close. But that’s how the cycle goes: governments make positive, encouraging noises, then walk back those promises, because at the end of the day the rest of Canada is happy enough to ignore these issues.

MacDonald does not mince words here, which I respect. He is highly critical of the Government of Canada (past and present), particularly in its highly selective and creative enshrining of the United Nations Genocide Convention into the Criminal Code of Canada. Similarly, he wastes no time excusing or apologizing for the government’s tendency to fight in court, with taxpayer dollars, things like human rights tribunal rulings. MacDonald is pretty careful in how he approaches these issues and his tone, however. He’s upfront about his background as a racialized settler Canadian and how that means that much of this isn’t his story to tell. Instead of communicating his feelings about these issues, he quotes people who are much closer to this: Survivors, their family members, TRC commissioners, etc. MacDonald argues that while we settlers are not disinterested parties, we are the parties who should do the learning.

He also engages directly with several other writers, often critiquing their positions. For example, he criticizes J.R. Miller for rejecting the label of genocide in his book on residential schools, which I read back when it came out. As someone not embedded in this academic field of study a lot of this intertextuality goes above my head; I’m not part of this fray. It’s very interesting, though, to see different thinkers engage with one another in this way. I don’t really know enough about this subject to analyze whether MacDonald’s critiques are valid.

I guess what I’m trying to get out of this book, and others like it, is a much more nuanced understanding of what’s going on right now in our society. That is to say, I’m past the basics. I understand what residential schools were. I accept that they are part of a much larger colonial framework of assimilation and, yes, genocide. But if we take all of these as givens, where do we go from there? The Sleeping Giant Awakens is interesting because it grounds a lot of this thinking in very concrete, very specific legal documents and precedents. Nevertheless, don’t let that scare you away: the book remains accessible to us laypeople.

At the end of the day, whatever position you personally take on the definition of genocide and its applicability here, I’d say this book is worth reading for the level of detail alone. Yes, this book is about genocide and residential schools. It’s about identifying how we can achieve “conciliation” (as opposed to reconciliation, and yes, I feel like we’re now playing buzzword musical chairs, but whatever)—but I think it goes deeper than that. Ultimately, The Sleeping Giant Awakens challenges the complacent cultural narrative we have of Canada as a “good” country for some vague, white-bread definition of good. This is what you see when the Prime Minister pats himself on the back for his latest announcement. When our textbooks laud our international peace-keeping efforts but don’t mention our arms deals to places like Saudi Arabia. When we pretend we don’t have a history of colonialism despite the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples here.

It’s not enough to be “woke” in the sense of knowing what the issues are. If you acknowledge these issues are real, that this oppression is really causing harm, then it follows that you should be considering what actions must be taken to change things. We can disagree on what those actions should be, but if we aren’t considering action at all … we’re still asleep.

So for those reasons, The Sleeping Giant Awakens was pretty good. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s going to be as informative or eye-opening for people who are only starting their learning when it comes to residential schools. MacDonald intentionally avoids going too deep into the details of the system. He hits the highlights, talks about Duncan Campbell Scott, etc. But if this is your starting point, you might be disappointed by his focus more on the aftermath and the behind-the-scenes view of the TRC’s decision to use the phrase “cultural genocide.” This book does not stand alone as an all-encompassing examination of residential schools (nor do I think for a moment it intends to). If, however, like me you’re looking to get deeper and to challenge your thinking some more, you’d do well to read this.


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