What we talk about when we talk about reconciliation

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ashok Mathur, Thompson Rivers University, Member of the Federation’s Equity and Diversity Steering Committee

As the momentum grows around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, with upcoming national events in 2013 in both Montreal and Vancouver, there is a concurrent, critical, and necessarily contemplative tone rising from various quarters. There was a time, not that long ago in the leadup to the striking of the current TRC, when Aboriginal advocates and their allies were clear in their demand for reconciliation now. But now that we have had the opportunity to see what the act of reconciliation looks like (and perhaps more importantly, what it does not resemble) there is a chorus of voices questioning, first, is that all there is? and second, is this the reconciliation we were calling for?

The literary/academic journal West Coast Line recently released a special issue comprised of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists and creators who were taking on these questions (Full volume available here). The title of the issue, “Reconcile this!,” resounds with a probing and remonstrating tone, and many of the articles and artworks between its covers complemented that note of resistance. Métis artist and critic David Garneau, in an article that was later transformed into a key opening presentation at the “Reconciliation: works in progress” symposium and artistic incubation at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in Sault Ste Marie, called for “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality,” which he defined as a type of intentional communal opacity “to signal to non-Aboriginal spectators the fact that intellectual activity is occurring without their knowledge; that is, in their absence and based on Native epistemologies” (33). His argument was largely based on a critical investigation of etymologies:

“Conciliation” is “the action of bringing into harmony.” It is an extrajudicial process that is a “conversion of a state of hostility or distrust” … a “peaceable or friendly union.” The word calls to mind the meeting of two previously separate parties. Applied to the Canadian situation, it allows the picturing of First Nations and Inuit people having an independent existence prior to contact. “Reconciliation” is a synonym with a difference. Re-conciliation refers to the repair of a previously existing harmonious relationship. This word choice imposes the fiction that equanimity is the status quo between Aboriginal people and Canada. Initial conciliation was tragically disrupted and will be painfully restored through the current process. In this context, the imaginary the word describes is limited to post-contact narratives. This construction anaesthetizes knowledge of the existence of precontact Aboriginal sovereignty. It narrates halcyon moments of co-operation before things went wrong as the seamless source of harmonious origin. And it sees the residential school era, for example, as an unfortunate deviation rather than just one aspect of the perpetual colonial struggle to contain and control Aboriginal people, territories, and resources. (35)

In an earlier blog post written for a small reconciliation research group I wrote that the exiting TRC has given us an opportunity to forefront the idea of reconciliation, but that I find myself siding with a number of critical thinkers (such as Garneau) who see the entire discourse of reconciliation as a project with a prescribed limitations. While it is a useful term with potential to affect social change – to some degree – I have come to believe that the notion of reconciliation will give way (and, in certain quarters, already has) to more vibrant attitudes of decolonization, resistance, rebellion, and not a small amount of good old bloody-mindedness – a way not just to enter into a consciousness of a nation-state and its people, but to radically alter that state of being. (This is somewhat of a paraphrase – the full blog available as ‘Against colonialist reinscriptions’  and for those who want to listen to some of these reflections, they can be found on Farida Hussain’s informative site New Settlers: perspectives on reconciliation)

This foregrounding leads me to a roundtable recently sponsored by Reconciliation Canada, the brainchild of Chief Robert Joseph, a hereditary chief for the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and active in the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. Around the table were a small group of Aboriginal Elders: Marie Anderson, Larry Grant, Yvonne Rigsby Jones, Chief Robert Joseph, Bill White, Barney Williams, Andy Yellowback, and Bessie Yellowback; and non-Aboriginal cultural organizers: Winnie Cheung, Ashok Mathur, Louise Ralston, Farid Rohani, Grace Thomson, and Robbie Waisman. Ostensibly our task was to frame some form of advisory statement, encouraging others in our communities to reflect on the concept of reconciliation and to bring it to bear on our everyday lives. This proved to be a challenge within the two-day timeframe we had together at the Museum of Anthropolgy at the University of British Columbia, for the necessary scope and tone of such a putative statement made it more than a little difficult to agree on shared language. Instead, however, we did deepen our resolve to think through how we could best open doors to this discourse, how we could create a larger and more positive awareness, particularly in our geographic local which would host the TRC in September of 2013.

As educators, academics, theorists, activists, artists, the question of how we can address our collective histories, inclusive of traumas and triumphs, is a difficult but necessary one. We may not be entering into an age of reconciliation per se, but investigating potential pathways and maintaining a sense of criticality and self-criticality will at the very least help us work toward an understanding of who we are and have come to be.


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