Humanities at Large

1.B. Humanities at Large Blogpost 15 September 2017

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A Conversation about Reconciliation

Humanities At Large
Jackman Humanities Institute Blog
22 September 2017

The JHI’s seminar room is the site of the residential fellows’ weekly lunch discussion, and this week Faculty Research Fellow Courtney Jung (Political Science) led our deliberations on the theme of reconciliation in the Canadian context. She pre-circulated four papers to the Circle of Fellows to inform our discussion:
•    D. Ivison, ‘Historical Injustice’, in J. Dryzek, B. Honnig, and A. Philipps (eds.), Oxford Handbook to Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 2006);
•    Y. Schulz, ‘Time Representations in Social Science’, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14.4 (2012), 441–7;
•    B. Bevernage, ‘Tales of Pastness and Contemporaneity: on the politics of time in history and anthropology’, Rethinking History 20.3 (2016), 352–74;
•    C. Jung, ‘Reconciliation: Eight Reasons to Worry’, unpublished.

She began by contextualizing our discussion in the shadow of Bruce Gilley’s recent online publication of ‘The case for colonialism’ in Third World Quarterly (8 September 2017). The fallout from the publication has been swift: a petition calling for the article’s retraction has gathered thousands of signatures, and ten days after the piece appeared roughly half the journal’s Board members had resigned in protest. The Toronto Star reports in depth on the controversy engendered by the article here.

Professor Jung noted the critical importance of research on reconciliation and the politics of apology in the context of the indelible violence such as that experienced by indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and the Canadian nation-state. She suggested that the Canadian government had deployed reconciliation as a concept of justice dependent on a linear conception of time, one that invites us to put the events of the past behind us and to draw a line between an unjust past and a more just present. But what if, as Bevernage has argued in History, Memory and State-Sponsored Violence (New York: Routledge, 2012), victims’ sense of the past is not past but present; what if transitional justice conceptualizes time from the perspective, and to the benefit, of the perpetrators of violence?



Kent Monkman, The Scream, 2016.  Exhibited January-March 2017 at the University of Toronto Art Museum in "Shame and Prejudice, a Story of Resilience"

One way to approach this troubling question might be to invoke a cyclical conception of time in the unfolding of reconciliation. A linear conception of reconciliation understands it as a transaction, whereby an apology equals forgiveness and absolution and allows us to believe we can now move on. There is an analogy between reconciliation and a treaty: for the Crown, treaties were a transaction, a deal. But indigenous scholars have made the point that the treaties govern relations going forward – as long as the grass grows, the sun shines, the rivers flow. This looks more like cyclical time: there is no end point to the treaties. What we need instead of a transaction, is a set of ethics and principles that might govern relations going forward – as long as the grass grows, the sun shines, the rivers flow.

Historically, in Canada, the state has framed relations with indigenous populations through two strategies: assimilation and multiculturalism. Both strategies pose fundamental problems: assimilation is understood as cultural difference (English/anglophone vs non-English/non-anglophone), while multiculturalism is understood as cultural distinction (Indigenous Canadians, French Canadians, African Canadians, …). Reconciliation at least fundamentally centres the fact of injustice and seeks a more just relationship – a better, more just, more productive framework for state-indigenous relations.




Neal McLeod, Wihtikow II (image courtesy © Senate of Canada)     

In discussion, many critical questions were raised and issues aired. What if we reframed reconciliation as an attempt by the state to secure its own future? Does reconciliation secure us in the present to make sure that capitalism and the state can continue to unfold in unbridled consumption? And if reconciliation is relational, then a spatial contextualization might more ethically replace a temporal contextualization. With the national focus on reconciliation, the truth has been left hanging quite painfully – whose truths, and how many truths, can be reconciled? Is the truth about residential schools displacing a cold hard look at the shameful history of land grabs that we call treaties? The question of whose truth is especially crucial: the focus has been on the victims of state violence rather than its beneficiaries. An important gap in the Canadian discussion of reconciliation lies in its exclusive focus on victimhood rather than the ongoing accrual and consolidation of wealth and power in settler culture over time.




Luke Marston, Bentwood Box. Created to hold objects presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Indian Residential Schools (TRC)


Violence is not only indelible: it is ongoing, a slow perpetration that isn’t just history but happening now – while the grass grows, the sun shines, the rivers flow.

Crystal Fraser, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and Sara Komarnisky, a post-doctoral fellow there, have developed 150 Acts of Reconciliation for Canada’s 150.