This is mostly about a conversation that happened while I was TAing at Carleton. A long overdue post that I started writing in 2019 (which is why it'll keep the title W[ta]F) and then left in my drafts as I started finishing up my thesis and forgot about/lost steam for this website. It was a class about the history of Canada - the same one I spoke about last time. It's a conversation I continue to think back on and that remains extremely relevant as public discussions about confronting the problematic erasure, violence, and harm found within narratives, celebrations, and presentations (i.e. monuments) of Canada's past continue to escalate. And rightly so.
Essentially, and I will go into more detail about the discussion after, there was a student who faced a small backlash from 2-3 other students for her criticism towards Trudeau Sr. They kept retaliating with "ya, but" comments.
Though I'm no longer a TA, I'm now teaching my own courses with my own students (whenever something trickles down the seniority list to me). In my Public History and [Im]Migration in Canada courses, as well as in courses on 20th century North American Social Revolutions, US History, and Western Civ, it's inevitable that I'll continue to moderate these types of discussions. Before TAing, I had only experienced them as a student and witnessed some pretty cringey (a very popular one in my BA days was "ya, but is it really cultural appropriation or is it appreciation?") if not downright disturbing incidents in classrooms where profs did not step in. As I continue to learn, I bring those incidents with me, keeping in mind this advice from Dr. Stephanie Richmond, shared in a Tweet last month directed at "fellow white faculty, [seeking] to make space for students to discuss current events without singling out your black students who don’t want to be singled out":
"you must clearly and directly position yourself as the protector of your students and their own processing of these events. You are the one who calls out the racism and the crap."
As a student, at both the undergrad and grad level, and then as a TA, no one outright teaches you how to do this. I guess it's assumed that somewhere in your training as an analytical, critical, conceptual thinker, and through your study of methodologies and historiographies, you kind of figure it out. You figure out how to intervene and shut things down with strong evidence and explanations. Though we know that this can also churn out lots of those "it's-my-freedom-of-speech-and-natural-right-to-be-able-to-play-devil's-advocate" types. Who are the worst and are in every history class you will ever take. One of them might even write a pathetic public letter about it one day.
The topic was Trudeaumania, regarding Trudeau Sr. It was a fun topic for the students, and I got to show them some of Trudeaumania's strangest memorabilia and artefacts, like this glass.
They laughed. But of course, beyond tumblers and his alleged sex appeal, there was something more important to discuss. And it came up. In 1969, Trudeau and his Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien put out a policy paper meant to dismantle the Indian Act of 1876. The White Paper of 1969 proposed to:
- Eliminate Indian status
- Dissolve the Department of Indian Affairs within five years
- Abolish the Indian Act
- Convert reserve land to private property that can be sold by the band or its members
- Transfer responsibility for Indian affairs from the federal government to the province and integrate these services into those provided to other Canadian citizens
- Provide funding for economic development
- Appoint a commissioner to address outstanding land claims and gradually terminate existing treaties
These proposals didn't answer to any of the actual concerns raised by Indigenous leaders and communities. And, in fact, were an attempt to further attack whatever rights and treaties they did have, (pretty unsuccessfully) masked as a positive step forward.
"It causes grim looks, because it was grim business. Couched in terms of ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’, it proposed to pave over the colonial history of Canada and pretend none of it happened, or mattered. It would be the final assimilationist move of a government intent on doing away once and for all what Duncan Campbell Scott called the "Indian Problem"." -Chelsea Vowel
It didn't challenge or change colonial practices in Canada. It was meant to finish the job, "politely." How Canadian.
The class discussion changed course and while the conversation that followed wasn't necessarily heated, it required particular navigation on my part. One student found herself repeatedly pushing back against a few others. No one seemed to outright disagreed with her, but her point was constantly followed up by 2-3 people's "ya, buts...":
"Ya, but he did some good things."
"Ya, but what about the other positive laws he put in place?" (there was lots of focus on how Trudeau loosened the laws around homosexuality, abortion, and divorce, for example)
"Ya, but what about the context of the time." (this is one we'll get back to in a bit)
I could tell she was getting frustrated, and it was frustrating. Because those "ya buts" are another form of erasure and silencing. It's saying that criticism can't be valid on its own. That it always needs to be qualified: "Ya, but he wasn't all bad."
And, like I said, while they weren't seemingly outright disagreeing with the student, those "ya, buts" were telling her that what she had to say didn't matter as much as their "buts"; that she was fundamentally wrong in her understanding and interpretation of the past; and that Trudeau's 1969 White Paper, a dangerous and deliberate colonial policy paper, was, essentially, not so bad in the grand scheme of his legacy.
My intervention was short. After allowing some back and forth and realizing that this was no longer leading towards a productive discussion, I knew it was time to step in. I wanted to shut down the "ya, buts" in a way that would make sense for those who were building their arguments on them. As a start, to encourage them to stop trying to qualify every criticism made against Trudeau Sr., I remember telling them to change their buts to ands. It's not about "ya, but-ing" the White Paper, it's about "ya, and-ing" the loosening of divorce laws. I remember asking why they felt the need to qualify these statements in the first place. What does this constant pushback really do, really represent, really mean?
There are many things I wish I would have said. More questions and challenges I would have posed for the class. Namely, in looking at all the "good things," they were forgetting to ask themselves: who was this for? Who did this help? Who was being centred? What's not being said? While Trudeau was proclaiming that "the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation", doctors continued to forcefully sterilize Indigenous women without their consent.
A Wrap-Up: "The Context of the Time"
This January, I taught a course on migration and immigration in Canada. From the first class, I was faced with a familiar (perhaps the quintessential) "ya, but": but what about the context of the time? I don't remember how I came across this article (probably on Twitter, tbh), but I'm glad I did. I only wish it had been written in early 2018 so that I could have passed this out to my students after our Trudeau conversation because it really gets to the heart of this knee-jerk "ya, but" reaction to challenging any problematic person, place, or thing of the past.
Do we need to hold back judgment for decisions people made, comments they may have said, actions they may have done because they were doing it in a time or context where maybe these actions would have been acceptable? As Erin Bartram writes in her article: “This sentiment - of judging people by the standards of their time - is often used to push back against people, including academic historians, who say that someone in the past did a bad thing or participated in a bad system. The criticism often ramps up from that point, saying it’s unfair—even wrong—to “make moral judgments” about the choices people made in the past.”
But Bartram challenges this because, just as we do today, people in the past made decisions on what to believe and how to act. Just as we do today, people made choices in defining who they are and how they treat others.
“It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing.” -Erin Bartram
People chose to believe in Social Darwinism, in racism, in eugenics. People still choose to believe that today. Some people resisted and resist; some people upheld and continue to uphold (while denying) systemic racism. "One kind of judgment that really bothers me," writes Bartram, "is the rush to conclude that people in the past were stupid, or didn’t have reasons for doing what they did." This removes their agency. Suddenly, it becomes easier to say "ya, but" because they're painted as people who "didn't know better" or "who weren't as bad as their counterparts." And suddenly, your conservation ends: there's no moving forward past that, just a dichotomy of "good and bad people"; there are no opportunities for critical thinking, just erasure and denial. In the end, those two small words hold a lot of power. They're loaded. So, I prepare to fight back every time.