Reconciliation at UFV

Posted by Geoffrey Carr, Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at UFV

Dr. Carr's research examines the function of architecture and art in the contested spaces of colonial encounter. Carr has also worked on the largely overlooked architectural history of the Indian Residential School system in Canada, as well as the problems of preserving and commemorating these difficult places. He also is interested in issues related to memorialization, heritage preservation, state apology, and discourses of social reconciliation. He is currently working on a book about the architectural designs of the residential schools. 

One of the first issues that emerged at the closing in June of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) concerned TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair's use of the phrase "cultural genocide." He used these words to describe the wrongs perpetrated by government and churches against Indigenous peoples in the Indian Residential School system. In the introduction of the Final Report of the TRC—Honoring the Truth, Reconciling for Future (2015)—cultural genocide is defined as the intentional destruction of “structures and practices that allow … [any] group to continue as a group”. The Report echoes Sinclair’s conclusion, citing a series of examples from Canada’s colonial history: government seizures of ancestral territories, forced relocations of Indigenous communities, prohibition of traditional languages, elimination of ancient religious practices, persecution of spiritual leaders, subversion of customary gender relations, destruction or sale of sacred cultural materials. Of course, there are more elements to this cultural genocide. Many more. Significantly in a recent Angus Reid poll, seventy percent of Canadians agree with Sinclair; yet P.M. Stephen Harper, Canada’s highest elected official, continues to refuse to utter the words “cultural genocide” when questioned about the conclusions of the TRC.

Why does this struggle over terminology matter? I think it matters because the words we use to describe traumatic histories may limit how we interpret such pasts but also (if chosen carefully) will help negate the dismissive gestures of apologists, deniers, and other assorted revisionists. In this instance, I suggest that the value of the phrase "cultural genocide" springs from its visceral, dissonant effect—sharply contrasting as it does with the popularly held image of Canada as a defender of human rights. True, on numerous occasions, Canada has protected human rights at home and abroad, but this cannot distract our gaze for one moment from the historic and ongoing abuse of the rights of Indigenous peoples in this country. The phrase “cultural genocide” rejects a narrow, sentimental vision of our nation in favour of an uncertain critical horizon so vast as to boggle the comprehension of any one mind. This seems entirely appropriate to me. How can any one person hope to grasp the enormity of a crime that played out over so many years, in so many places, at the expense of so many people? How can it reasonably be said that Indigenous people need to “get over” the centuries-long series of violent episodes, betrayals, epidemics, misguided policies, and neglect that have punctuated Canada’s colonial history? 

Despite the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing Indigenous communities, I find a measure of hope in the simple fact that a majority of Canadians acknowledge the gravity of the offense committed against First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. This admission helps to square a rightful balance between truth and reconciliation. Yet, how to persist in truth-telling in a divided society when one of the main features of that society is a profound and lasting silence about its history? It is promising that BC’s Education Minister Peter Fassbender has committed to including more curriculum on our colonial past in the K-12 system, yet the path to truth and reconciliation requires more than educational reform. It is revealing that in the same poll cited above, those “less sympathetic to Aboriginal causes” were “those without relationships with Indigenous people”. Conversely, it seems fair to suggest that building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is the key not only to solving the truth deficit around this difficult past but also to charting a course towards a more just society.

During the closing moments of the TRC, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, exhorted non-Indigenous Canadians to “make room in their hearts, and minds, and spirits … to rid yourselves of those racist attitudes … rid yourselves of images of Indigenous people as being substandard, as pagan, as savages … so that new things can come in … [a new] respect for our languages, our customs, and our traditions”. For me, this strikes at the heart of the issue. Every heart and every mind touched by colonial history needs healing. Clearly, the nature of that healing differs between those who have suffered the brunt of cultural genocide from those who have not. But what does it mean for those who have inherited wealth, privilege, and power at such a cost to others? It is naïve to think that such a heritage does not dehumanize each one of us. Any chance for real reconciliation demands not only an end to such naiveties, but also a wider sense that rejecting bigotry for tolerance, respect, and friendship is ultimately enlightened self-interest.

Response by:
Geoffrey Carr
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