1624 Schools of thought

Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia
by Sean Carleton

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022
$89.95   / 9780774868075

Reviewed by Patrick A. Dunae


With its sardonic title, Lessons in Legitimacy exemplifies an activist genre of history that has emerged in Canada following the revelations and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] on Indian residential schools.

In this book, Sean Carleton argues that federally-funded schools for Indigenous children in British Columbia, along with provincial public schools for settler children, were used to “justify the colonial project” and the inequities of “settler capitalism.”

Evoking the TRC’s final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015), the author contends that:

if settler Canadians are serious about repairing relations with Indigenous Peoples, the full extent of Canada’s history of education and colonialism – including schools for settlers – must be understood and addressed. There are no easy shortcuts. We need truth before reconciliation.

“This book,” Carleton declares, “contributes to the important project of truth telling about Canada’s history of schooling and colonialism” (p. 4).

Sean Carleton of North Vancouver, now of Winnipeg

Lessons in Legitimacy is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, which was completed at Trent University in 2016. The book’s sub-title derives from the title of his dissertation: “Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia, 1849-1900.” In this published version, the chronological range of the study is extended to 1930.

The parameter of 1930 is puzzling. According to the author, educational reforms attenuated with the onset of the Depression and few significant changes were made to the public school system in BC until after the Second World War (p. 15). Thus, 1930 is a logical place to draw the study to its close. But the curriculum of public schools in BC was revised substantially in the 1930s, with an emphasis on citizenship and loyalty to the state and its institutions. Also, during this decade the provincial Education Department began consolidating small, rural and assisted schools into larger, regional administrative units. As the author points out, schools in rural communities were more integrated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous pupils than most people realize. The push for consolidation, which culminated in 1946 with the creation of school districts familiar today, affected pupils in many ways that are germane to this study.

Students at the Capilano public school in North Vancouver, 1920s. Archives of North Vancouver, Image 6490
Victoria schoolteacher and adventurer Agnes Deans Cameron (1863-1912). Photo courtesy Courtenay Museum and Archives

Lessons in Legitimacy comprises about two hundred pages of text, over sixty pages of endnotes, and a twenty-five-page bibliography. I am pleased that one of my publications, The School Record, is included in the list of sources but disappointed that my surname is misspelled.

More important, a notable book entitled The Forces Which Shaped Them: A History of the Education of Minority Group Children in British Columbia, by Mary Ashworth is omitted. Published in 1979 by New Star Books in Vancouver, it was well-received in the academy (see a review by J. Donald Wilson in BC Studies No. 46, Summer 1980). Although its terminology is outdated, its chapter on Indian residential schools still resonates. It would be interesting to read a modern appraisal on ActiveHistory.ca, “a website that connects the work of historians with the wider public and the importance of the past to current events.” Sean Carleton was a contributing editor to this first-rate online forum.

Carleton is presently an Assistant Professor of History and Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba. His book, Lessons in Legitimacy, demonstrates the value of unsettling “the conventions of education history by bringing schooling for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, often studied separately, into one analytical frame.” By drawing upon “theoretical insights from Critical Indigenous studies, historical materialism and political economy,” his book will help academic readers to “comprehend the braided histories of colonialism, capitalism, and state schooling in British Columbia” (pp. 6, 8). Moreover, while the book is concerned with attitudes, policies and events from the past, its main findings are “relevant to the present.” Lessons in Legitimacy, Carleton says, “contributes to the process of acknowledging the ‘complex truth’ about schooling and settler capitalism [in British Columbia] that is the necessary precondition for decolonization and meaningful reconciliation” (p. 211).


Patrick Dunae. Photo by Deddeda Stemler

Patrick A. Dunae was born in Victoria and lives there now. He taught BC history at the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University. He is the author of The School Record: A Guide to Government Archives Relating to Public Education in British Columbia, 1852-1946, and editor of The Homeroom: British Columbia’s History of Education website. He contributed a chapter on “Education, Emigration and Empire” in a collection of essays edited by J.A. Mangan, Benefits Bestowed? Education and British Imperialism (Routledge, 1988). Editor’s note: Patrick Dunae has also reviewed books by Linda Eversole, Bethany Lindsay & Andrew Weichel, Jenny Clayton, and Valerie Green, and he has recently reviewed the television docuseries British Columbia: An Untold History for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


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7 comments on “1624 Schools of thought

  1. Prof. Carleton is making a name for himself by appealing to other Indigenous/social activist academics. What worries me is the way he throws his weight around on Twitter. For example, he disparages judges for not “recognizing” that 215 ground disturbances equals 215 bodies of dead children — AS IF a judge presiding over a Court of Law doesn’t have to maintain legal standards of what constitutes evidence or proof. The ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is consistent with what the TRC said about 3,200 children who died, mostly of communicable disease, and who were buried, (mostly at least) in cemeteries. But they only indicate potential bodies — not actual ones, as this judge properly said. Carleton’s smearing of these judges, and of Ken Coates, as “residential school denialists” is irresponsible but it endears him to those who like to hear it.

  2. I heard Dr. Carleton on the radio and got this book from the library. It is excellent and very important. I think all British Columbians should read it. Thanks to Dr. Carleton for his work.

  3. I found Patrick Dunae’s review of Sean Carleton’s book both informative and thoughtful. Therefore, it surprised me when Professor Carleton — via Twitter — dismissed the review because it was written by an “old white guy.” A much better response would have been to deal with the questions that Dunae raised in his review.
    I might add that Twitter is hardly the medium for such an exchange. The consequences of the residential school system are very much with us, and would be better served by debate in a proper medium.

  4. I thank my friend and fellow “old white man” Patrick Dunae for both this review and his thoughtful observation about what passes today for intellectual debate in some academic circles.

    Sean Carleton might have taken up points raised in Dunae’s generally-positive review in a response on these pages, where readers would have the opportunity to see arguments side by side, assessing the merits and flaws of each.

    He’s chosen instead to fire up his Twitter, which lets him send out a glib put down of “old white guys” and count on his Twitter devotees (aka “followers”) to echo and amplify his sentiments – all without necessarily having read the review itself.

    On the subject of addressing history that challenges biases, Carleton made a relevant point in a 2018 article in the lifestyle magazine Avenue that praised him as one of Calgary’s “Top 40 Under 40.” He said: “Often when people are confronted with an interpretation of the past that doesn’t register, their reaction is anger and frustration because they don’t understand.”

    It seems to me that rather than seeking to understand Dunae’s measured review – and actually reading it beyond the first four words – Carleton and several of his Twitter loyalists illustrate the very “anger and frustration” in the face of a different point of view that Carleton himself deprecates. One of his acolytes goes so far as to suggest – without evidence – that Dunae is part of a band of “some of the worst racists and terrible human beings around.” Carleton responded immediately. Did he ask if the review in fact merits condemning Dunae to membership in that odious clique? Nope, he piled on by adding that “it’s mostly just a handful of old white guys who are just sad that they’ve lost control of the narrative/field.”

    Disparaging people based on their age, gender and race used to be called ageism, sexism and racism. But that’s so 20th century. The “lesson in legitimacy” of the 21st century is that enraged 280-character trash talk is perfectly proper for a self-promoting rebel without tenure. Astonishingly, academia seems not just to allow but actually to encourage it.

    I do hope that white male Carleton never grows old – although at 38 he’s already past his prime by the standards of the young revolutionaries of an earlier era who took their politics to the streets to speak to real people and confront actual authority. In any case, pandering to like-minded choristers on Twitter is way too much fun to give up. Long may he tweet – until his thumbs give out.

  5. Although my review (above) of Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia by Sean Carleton was not unfavourable, it has annoyed the author who has vented about me on social media, notably on Twitter. For readers who are not on Twitter, here’s a summary of Sean Carlton’s posts and tweets [i. e. comments] from his Twitter followers over the past few days.

    Carleton began his thread by posting an image of the opening paragraph of my review with a caption: “This week’s instalment of weird things grumpy old white men say about my book on the internet…” One of his followers responds: “Recent events have really uncovered that some of the worst racists and terrible human beings around are those who claim to be ‘historians.’” Carleton replies: “Honestly, it’s mostly just a handful of old white guys who are just sad that they’ve lost control of the narrative field.” Another follower opines: “the problem is that being an ‘activist’ or ‘woke’ is a high crime in some people’s minds.” Carleton replies: “And those ‘some people’ are mostly from one very specific, predictable demographic.”

    Commenting on an email he received about Indian residential schools, Carleton remarks that it was sent by “A grumpy old white guy who misunderstands my work [and who] saw my tweet about another grumpy old white guy misunderstanding my work….”

    Well, pace Professor Carleton, I’m not feeling grumpy. However, I’m not happy at the inferences that you and your followers are making about my convictions and scholarship on Twitter. I would be pleased to discuss my review of your book, and debate the history of schools in BC, on this forum.

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