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Doctoral dissertation project of Lena Rüßing

Indian Residential Schools: Indigeneity, Transitional Justice, and Postcolonial Reconciliation in Canada (working title)

In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were systematically taken from their families and communities, and sent to so-called Indian Residential Schools where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse were commonplace, and the practice of their cultural traditions was forbidden. The Indian residential school system was a crucial component in an overarching settler colonial policy of oppression towards Indigenous peoples aimed at assimilating Indigenous children into the growing Euro-Canadian settler society. The schools were operated by different churches and funded by the federal government.

From the late 20th century onwards, several initiatives such as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were established to address the diverse forms of colonial injustice inflicted on Indigenous children in these institutions and to work towards new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, based on mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and Indigenous self-determination.

The doctoral dissertation project traces the history of reconciliation between residential school survivors, their families and communities, and the government and church denominations. The study focuses on different reconciliation elements involved in the process of coming to terms with the history of residential schools such as Government and Church apologies, litigation, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), and the TRC. It is thereby the central aim of the study to place emphasis on Indigenous peoples’ perspectives on reconciliation and their understanding of the addressing of residential school policies. The project will connect approaches from Transitional Justice, Indigenous Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.


Short biography

Lena Rüßing studied Media and Communications Studies and History at the University of Bonn. She also holds a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Studies in European Culture from the University of Konstanz and the University of Pretoria. After finishing her studies in 2014, she received a scholarship from the “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration” Center of Excellence at the University of Konstanz from November 2014 till April 2015 (for the preparation of her doctoral studies). Currently, she is a doctoral candidate and scholarship holder at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne at the University of Cologne, doing research on Indian residential schools and postcolonial reconciliation in Canada. Her doctoral project is affiliated to the Modern History Department of the School of History at the University of Cologne and is supervised by Prof. Dr. Ulrike Lindner (University of Cologne), Dr. Barbara Lüthi (University of Cologne), and Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dr. h.c. Claus Kreß LL.M (Cambridge/University of Cologne). Her research topics include Transitional Justice / Peace and Conflict Studies, Canadian and Australian history (particularly focusing on Indigenous-Settler relations), Indigenous History, Settler Colonial Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and Genocide Studies.

Contact: lena.ruessing(at)uni-koeln.de


Publications and other formats

Interview in: Körber-Stiftung (Hg.): Nachwendekinder: 30 Jahre Deutsche Einheit. Eine neue Generation fragt nach, Hamburg 2020, S. 5-7, URL: https://www.koerber-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/koerber-stiftung/redaktion/geschichtswettbewerb/pdf/2020/alumnibereich/Broschuere_Koerber_Stiftung_Nachwendekinder_WEB.pdf

Interview im Deutschlandfunk vom 30.09.2020 im Rahmen des Projekts „Nachwendekinder: 30 Jahre Deutsche Einheit“ der Körber-Stiftung. Zum Nachhören hier  http://podcast-mp3.dradio.de/podcast/2020/09/30/nachwende_kinder_interview_mit_maximilian_pretzel_und_dlf_20200930_0815_47c07d08.mp3

With Brigitte Weiffen: Transitional Justice. Allzweckwaffe für die Gerechtigkeit, in: Katapult – Cartography and Social Science Magazine, 5, 2017, URL: http://katapult-magazin.de/de/artikel/artikel/fulltext/allzweckwaffe-fuer-die-gerechtigkeit.


Presentations (selection)

“Including the Indigenous ‘Other’: Inclusion and Exclusion Strategies at Indian Residential Schools in Canada”
5 November 2020: Presentation given at the international conference “Exclude to Include: Global Perspectives on Boarding Schools, their Participants and Processes during the 19th and 20th Centuries”, 5 – 6 November 2020, University of Münster, Department of History.

“Making a ‘Future’ after Residential School in Canada: Indigenous Activism of the Shingwauk Residential School Survivors (1981–1998)”
12 June 2019: Presentation given at the panel “Indigenous Visions of a Decolonial Future: Utopianism and Political Action from the Colonial Past to the Colonial Present across the Americas”, International conference “Future today / yesterday / tomorrow. Visions of Future(s) in the Americas”, 12 – 14 June 2019, University of Bonn.

“Indian Residential Schools in Kanada: Zum Umgang mit ‘Versöhnung’ in den Regierungsentschuldigungen der Jahre 1998, 2008 und 2017”
17 September 2018: Presentation given at the workshop “Versöhnung als theologischer Begriff im interdisziplinären Spannungsfeld”, 17 – 18 September 2018, DFG Research Training Group “Self-Making: Practices of Subjectivation in Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspective”, University of Oldenburg.

“Coming to terms with the history of Indian residential schools in Canada: the example of the Exploratory Dialogues”
11 April 2018: Presentation given at the 39th American Indian Workshop “Arrows of Time: Narrating the Past and Present”, 10 – 13 April 2018, Ghent University, Department of History.

“Indian Residential Schools: A History of Postcolonial Acknowledgement in Canada”
17 February 2017: Presentation given in the context of the Awards Ceremony at the 38th Annual Conference of the Association for Canadian Studies in German-speaking Countries (GKS), “Neue Perspektiven auf Suburbia – Revisiting Suburbia”, 17 – 19 February 2017, Hotel am Badersee, Grainau.

“Wahrheit und Versöhnung in post-kolonialen Gesellschaften. Die Wahrheitskommissionen in Kanada und Mauritius”
5 March 2016: Presentation given at the conference “Verzeihen – Versöhnen – Vergessen”, Sektion Kultursoziologie der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie, 4 – 5 March 2016, University of Lucerne, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Transitional Justice in post-kolonialen Gesellschaften: Die Wahrheitskommissionen in Kanada und Mauritius”
25 January 2016: Presentation given at the colloquium “Neuere und Neueste Geschichte”, Modern History Department of the School of History, University of Cologne.

“Truth Commissions in Post-Colonial Societies. The Cases of Canada and Mauritius”
16 October 2015: Presentation given at the symposium “The Brazilian National Truth Commission in the Context of Latin America: Local, National and Global Perspectives”, 15 – 17 October 2015, Volkswagen Foundation, Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover (in cooperation with the Zukunftskolleg at the University of Konstanz).


Organised events

International conference “Dealing with the Past to Create a Peaceful Future: Young Scholars’ Perspectives on Transitional Justice”, organized by the Transitional Justice Research Group (TJRG) of the University of Cologne, 14 – 15 September 2018, University of Cologne, Faculty of Law, Institute for International Peace and Security Law (IIPSL).


Teaching experience

Advanced MA-Seminar “Canadian Indigenous Histories” (Instructor: Dr. Nadine Klopfer), Amerika-Institut, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich

4 July 2019: Guest Lecture on “Indian Residential Schools and Postcolonial Reconciliation in Canada”



Founding member of the Transitional Justice Research Group (TJRG), University of Cologne

Member of the Association for Canadian Studies in German-speaking Countries (GKS)



2016: 2016/2017: Annual doctorate scholarship by the Foundation for Canadian Studies - Stiftung für Kanada-Studien

2016: Travel Scholarship for conducting research in Canada by a.r.t.e.s. international – for all

2014/2015: Scholarship for the preparation of a doctoral dissertation project by the “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration” Center of Excellence, University of Konstanz


Cover photo: „global“ von vege/fotolia.com // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad