The Indian residential school system is one of the most heinous parts of Canada's history and is an ongoing injustice for Indigenous people across Canada. While a government apology and ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission have begun to heal the wounds that began over one hundred years ago, Canada still has a lot to answer for and reflect upon. Indeed, Canadians should never stop contemplating their historical complicity in the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous people throughout the 20th century through residential schools and the Indian Act.
This project grew out of a desire to discover how people were thinking about the residential schools in the last several years, with developments like Stephen Harper's apology in 2008 and the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I wanted to learn if Canadians were considering the legacy of residential schools or if it was being ignored in the everyday experiences of Canadians. I have not uncovered any objective answers, but what I have discovered is illuminating nonetheless.
Through analyzing search patterns on Google Trends about residential schools, I believe I have uncovered some interesting patterns and trends in how people use Google, the most prevalent search engine of the Internet, to look for knowledge about residential schools. By looking at when searching is going on, where it is happening, and how residential schools are being searched, I believe that I have discovered who is searching for residential schools primarily and why. Trends that seem both obvious and unusual are viewable, and indeed there are some trends that I am unable to understand, and hopefully another historian can discover further patterns and trends about residential schools and the general population.
This project is meant as a gateway for other historians to examine the public consciousness around residential schools, the history of the Indian Act, and the history of assimilation of Indigenous people in this country. Others are encouraged to take this material and explore further trends, while rooting them in close readings of material as well.
One of the most important aspects of analyzing the public consciousness on residential schools is to see how that consciousness plays out over time. Some very interesting things reveal themselves when trends are examined over a longer period of time. With this information, we can roughly gauge who is searching for residential schools the most, and what events have triggered this.
The first thing that needs to be discussed is who is searching for residential schools: with close examination of this graph and some basic inference, we can discover that fairly easily. Looking at this timeline, one can see there is a general fluctuation in search patterns from 2004 to the present: there may be a rise in discussion of residential schools for the better part of a year, but there are numerous dips within each year. While the search activity from year to year can differ, these periods of search inactivity persist.
If one mouses over the lower portions of the graph, the months they represent are July, August, January and December. Furthermore, the dips in July and August are significantly larger than those during January and December. These dates correspond to the Canadian public school schedule, with two months off in the summer (July and August) and several weeks off for Christmas and New Years (December and January). It is clear to see that the people who are searching the most for residential schools on Google are students!
What can we draw from this then, on a historical basis? We can assume that student assignments based around residential schools are part of the curriculum and therefore not entirely dependent on political events, such as Harper's apology or the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). While Harper's apology does make a spike in search frequency, if one looks to June of 2008, or discussion of compensation, if one looks at November of 2004 or 2005, searches are still made during the year on a schedule that is largely consistent with the school year. This latter discussion of compensation may not be linked to the search frequencies in these periods at all: instead, it may be the time of year that teachers generally introduce discussion of residential schools. This would be consistent with the general pattern of discussion on residential schools peaking in November and March or April respectively, both of which are in the middle of each half of the school year.
In the last two sections, we have looked at who is looking up material on residential schools, and have ascertained an idea of where and why they are doing so. This section will attempt to explore how they are doing it, by looking at semantic choices in searches across Canada. One can remember the timeline we used in the last section concerning search habits across several provinces. To further that discussion, let's look at some different searches possibly being made across Canada that pertain to residential schools.
Aside from the baseline "residential schools" term, I am going to look at four terms that are different ways of saying the same thing: canada residential schools, canadian residential schools, indian residential schools, and aboriginal residential schools. When we look at these terms on Google Trends, some interesting patterns appear that are a bit unexpected.
This line graph doesn't tell us anything too revolutionary - at least, not what I plan to illuminate later. While there is a clear distinction on usage of each of these terms, it is fair to generalize that all of them are used in some way or another. We can then accept that in whatever way these terms appear subsequently, they are legitimate.
When we check to see what the dispersion of these terms across Canada is, we get some very unusual patterns for which there are no obvious ways to explain.
Looking at those terms initially, the assumption could have been that these different terms were arbitrary and meaningless, and could be equal across Canada. But these figures show that to be false: there is a regional divide between Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the rest of the provinces in western and central Canada.
In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the terms most used, aside from the simple residential schools, are are "indian residential schools" and "canada residential schools." In Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, the most frequent terms are "canadian residential schools," and to a lesser degree, "aboriginal residential schools." That last term has a frequency of 100 in Manitoba, which is interesting. This is a lot of variance in the terms across the country... what could this possibly mean?
There are many possibilities for what these semantic differences might signify. This project will not examine outside factors on these and instead will speculate in order to allow other historians or sociologists to explore this.
There are two possibilities I have conceived of for the difference between "indian residential schools" and "aboriginal residential schools." One, the use of the term Indian might represent the presence of systemic racism in Saskatchewan, as opposed to the more progressive and appropriate term Aboriginals being used in other parts of the country. However, that explanation disregards some important factors. For example, if systemic racism was affecting search history in one of the prairie provinces like this, it does not make sense that the trend would not be reflected in Manitoba as well, where the capital city was called out by Macleans magazine as the most racist city in the country.
Instead, perhaps an explanation could be that education focuses on the legacy and history of residential schools more in Saskatchewan. It is true that the official title of the residential schools is Indian Residential Schools - and there is no such thing as an Aboriginal residential school. Thus, one could see an overcompensation of politically correct discussion in other provinces, assuming the term Indian is inappropriate in all contexts, even when referring to past institutions like the residential schools. While this does not give any real answers, highlighting these strange semantic differences illuminates possibilities for further historical scholarship on residential schools and public consciousness.
One idea I have towards the divide between "canada residential schools" and "canadian residential schools," additionally, is a conception of the nature of residential schools. Contrary to the idea of Saskatchewan using proper terminology as just discussed, the use of the word Canadian in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia could represent a fuller engagement the provinces have with discourses of residential schools and their legacy. The use of the word Canadian can signify a recognition of the fact that these schools are Canadian, and are an essential part of our national story. Conversely, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, just the use of Canada while searching for residential schools could represent instead a lack of recognition that these schools were a venture supported and run by the Canadian government. They might see them as something that happened in Canada, as opposed to something Canadian.