Andrew Stobo Sniderman LL.M. ’22, a lawyer and writer from Montreal, has spent the past few months traveling around Canada talking about his bestselling book, “Valley of the Birdtail: An Indian Reserve, a White Town, and the Road to Reconciliation,” co-written with Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii). It’s a work about Canada’s past that Sniderman hopes could lead to a better future.
The book follows the stories of multiple generations of two families in western Manitoba — an Indigenous family on the Waywayseecappo First Nation reserve and a Ukrainian Canadian family across the valley in Rossburn — over 150 years. It weaves in Canadian history, politics, and law to illustrate how their lives and communities became separate and unequal. Unlike many similarly affected communities across Canada, however, in 2010 Waywayseecappo and Rossburn charted their own course, finding a way to equalize the government funding available to their schools and pooling resources. Since then, more students from Waywayseecappo have gone on to graduate from high school, and bridges have been built between the two communities.
Sniderman first wrote about Waywayseecappo and Rossburn in 2012, seeing them as illustrative of the gap in Canada between non-Indigenous and Indigenous schools, the latter of which had for decades received thousands of dollars less per student.
Earlier, in reporting he had done on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, survivors of the century-old Indian residential schools — which were responsible for the abuse, neglect, and entrapment of countless First Nation people — told their stories. “It was a devastating experience for me, and inspiring at the same time,” Sniderman recalled. “The residential schools are closed, but the aftershocks continue for many generations.”
As he began researching the book, he saw that as a non-Indigenous Canadian, he couldn’t do it justice alone, and asked Sanderson, who had been his property law professor at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, to join him. “He was thinking about the big picture in a way that I just hadn’t been,” said Sniderman.
To avoid reinforcing what Sniderman described as “a narrative of hopelessness,” they decided to focus on the Birdtail Valley communities. “We wanted to find a place that illustrated what had gone wrong in the past but could also show what a better future could look like,” he said.
Ten years in the making and the product of archival research and extensive interviews with residents of the two communities, “Valley of the Birdtail” has met with praise for its fidelity to the historical record and to its characters. Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the U.N., called it “a remarkable book, combining wonderful stories with historical, legal, and political analysis on a subject that is critical to our future in Canada and around the world.”
Law is also a character in the book, according to Sniderman. Canada’s Indian Act and other government mandates subjected Indigenous communities to decades of discrimination and oppression, from threatening parents with arrest if their children did not attend the residential schools, to imposing restrictions on ceremonial dancing, to making it almost impossible for an Indigenous community to hire a lawyer.
“The government also ignored legal constraints,” Sniderman said, imposing a “glaringly illegal” pass system which controlled a resident’s ability to leave the reserve. “I found examples of government officials acknowledging the illegality of the pass system, but they still enforced it for decades.”
In 1982, Canada integrated its first Charter of Rights and Freedoms into its Constitution, but the oppression and unequally funded schools persisted. “The inequality between the two sides of the Birdtail was not an aberration. It was not some unfortunate, isolated case. It was, rather, perfectly in keeping with the norm for the five hundred schools on reserves across Canada,” Sniderman noted. “The fact that these communities had separate but unequal schools for many decades — even after Canada had this beautiful Charter of Rights and Freedoms — has never been addressed.”
It was this constitutional question that animated Sniderman’s thinking while writing the book and during his studies at Harvard Law. In his LL.M. paper, under the supervision of Professors Michael Klarman and Martha Minow, he outlined a case for holding unconstitutional the unequal treatment of schools on reserves. He also examined the parallels between the integration of Indigenous children into Canada’s provincial public schools and the integration of Black children in the U.S.
At Klarman’s suggestion, Sniderman expanded his research to newspaper archives. That’s when he came across two photos in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail — from September 1954, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education — and an announcement that the first group of Indian students had enrolled in a public school, calling this “an experiment to see how well a scheme of non-segregation works out.”
“These experiences of integration are absolutely lined up in time,” Sniderman said. “Brown was not the direct cause of what was happening in Canada, but it did bring about a lot of reflection and draw more attention to the problem of separate schools in Canada.” One of the interesting differences, he said, was that in Canada, starting in the early 1970s, many hundreds of Indigenous communities pulled their children out of the newly integrated public schools and set up their own schools on reserves. One Indigenous leader, cited in the book, described the new government policy of integration as a “thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.” Sniderman notes that communities in Canada still wrestle with the upsides and risks of separate education.
Sniderman, who lives in New York with his wife, Mariella, also a lawyer, and their infant son, Amaru (named after the last Inca who fought against the Spanish), returns to HLS in September to pursue doctoral studies. “Writing this book has been the most challenging and best work I’ve ever done,” he said. “Now I’m looking for a worthy sequel!”