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Contextualizing Truth: Recent Contributions to Discourses of Reconciliation in Canada

Emberley, Julia. Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2007. 319 pages; $32.95 paper.

Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. Winnipeg, MA: University of Manitoba Press, 2009. 247 pages; $27.95 paper.

Younging, Gregory, Dewar, Jonathan, and DeGagné, Mike (eds.) Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009; 409 pages. Available for free download at www.ahf.ca.

Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal

Taking Back Our Spirits

Response, Responsibility, and Renewal

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system in Canada spanned a period of over 100 years and is slowly being recognized as one of the most brutal policies of assimilation in Canadian history. In June 2008, the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRS TRC) was established to bring awareness to this past and its legacies. But long before the establishment of the IRS TRC, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, activists, and scholars have drawn attention to Canada’s oppressive colonial past. Notably, the work of filmmaker Loretta Todd (The Learning Path), author Basil Johnston (Indian School Days), historians John Milloy (A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System) and J.R. Miller (Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools), among others, have brought recognition to the personal and political implications of the forced assimilation practiced through the IRS system.

Adding to this growing field are three books that help situate the movement for redress within a larger discourse of decolonization in Canada. Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, edited by Gregory Younging, Jonathan Dewar and Mike DeGagné, provides a range of perspectives on the climate in which the commission was established. Jo-Ann Episkenew’s Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing broadens the focus to look at initiatives for healing that fall outside the scope of a truth commission. And Julia Emberley’s Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada engages with visual representations of the colonial tropes that helped shape Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal interactions.

Of the three books, Response, Responsibility and Renewal focuses the most explicitly on the IRS system and the subsequent truth commission. It includes a range of local, national, and international perspectives on the IRS TRC. Arranged in three sections, History in Our Midst; Reconciliation, Restitution, Rhetoric; and Tomorrow’s History, the essays reflect on several key issues including the role of apologies in the context of reconciliation, land rights and self-government, the loss of indigenous language and culture, and efforts of resilience and empowerment. In total, there are 24 short essays in the book, each providing a snapshot into the issues that both complicate and enrich any discussion of reconciliation in Canada.

Several authors use the much-discussed Prime Minister’s official apology in 2008 as an anchoring point for reflection. For example, see Ian MacKenzie’s “For Everything There is a Season,” Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Cry Me A River, White Boy” or Jose Amaujaq Kusugak’s “On the Side of Angels.” Mick Dodson explores the international context of the apology by reflecting on the Australian Prime Minister’s apology for a similar history in “When the Prime Minister Said Sorry.” Other essays focus on the potential shortcomings of the commission’s mandate and proposed scope: “You Can’t Un-Ring A Bell: Demonstrating Contrition Through Action” by Waziyatawin or “Half-Truths and Whole Lies: Rhetoric in the ‘Apology’ and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” by Roland Chrisjohn and Tanya Wasacase, for example. One of the strongest condemnations of the reconciliation process comes from Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred. In his short essay, “Restitution is the Real Pathway to Justice for Indigenous Peoples,” Alfred emphasizes that the crime of colonialism does not reside in the past. Contrary to those who see the residential school system and similar policies as remnants of a long-forgotten colonial mind, Alfred writes, “The crime of colonialism is present today, as are its perpetrators, and there is yet no moral or logical basis for Indigenous peoples to seek reconciliation with Canada” (187). Alfred argues for restitution, not reconciliation, which would seek to “restore the pre-colonial relationship of sharing and cooperation among diverse peoples” (186).

Published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which has a mandate to provide resources and help facilitate a holistic healing process for those affected by the IRS system, the collection supplies an impressive range of responses to the reconciliation process. Together, the essays read like the many threads of a complicated conversation. As such, they contribute to a diverse archive of experiences related to the IRS system, and provide an important starting point for further discussion.

Although Jo-Anne Episkenew’s insightful and accessible Taking Back Our Spirits is not framed as a book about the Canadian truth commission, it helps to contextualize the current discourses of healing, truth, and reconciliation in Canada. Episkenew explores the role of indigenous literature in contributing previously unheard voices to the Canadian national narrative. Although some may see the writing of indigenous authors as a work of personal healing, Episkenew argues that these works also provide a “counter-story” to dominant narratives of a benevolent Canadian nation-state. As such, they must also be recognized for their contribution to creating public awareness of the many issues that effect Aboriginal communities today. “Indigenous autobiography goes beyond catharsis,” she writes. “It is an act of imagination that inspires social regeneration by providing eyewitness testimony to historical injustices. As such, it is intensely political” (75). Much of the work she discusses (by authors including Maria Campbell, Richard Wagamese, and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier among others), mentions the role played by the Indian Residential School system in cycles of abuse and neglect in Aboriginal families and communities.

In Chapters One and Two, Episkenew lays the groundwork for subsequent chapters by discussing the ways in which public policy, myth-making, and discourses of healing are intertwined. Here, she draws on the work of Eduardo and Bonnie Duran on postcolonial psychology and playwright Monique Mojica’s theories of “postcolonial traumatic stress disorder” and “ethno stress” to explain a particular type of response to long-term colonial trauma. This response is explored in her subsequent chapters, where the significance of indigenous literature (and theatre in the case of Chapter Five) outside the realm of academia becomes clear. The re-crafting of personal stories aids in the re-crafting of collective ones. Episkenew writes, “By making public another story, Indigenous autobiography calls into question the veracity of the national collective myth to address the pathology of colonialism” (73). The issue of veracity occupies an important place in Episkenew’s book. In many ways, at the heart of her work is the question, what constitutes truth? In the context of the IRS TRC, this question will continue to demand attention.

Julia Emberley’s, Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal, shifts the emphasis from literature to visual representation. She explores the ways in which representational technologies (film, photographs, and artwork) have configured and reconfigured colonial constructs including the “bourgeois family” and “Aboriginality.” She argues that these technologies of representation have inscribed a European, patriarchal family structure onto indigenous societies in Canada. Referencing the work of Laura Ann Stoler, Emberley emphasizes the domestic realm as both a target and mechanism for colonial domination. Although Emberley’s text does not deal specifically with the IRS TRC, the Indian Residential School system is mentioned several times as a tool for defining and disrupting Aboriginal kin relationships.

Through her reading of various textual and filmic representations, Emberley seeks to unearth a “colonial grid of intelligibility” (92). The grid she reveals may be loose, but it is binding nonetheless. In exploring the terrain of the family as a signifying practice in Canadian history, she casts a wide theoretical net. Moving through the work of theorists including Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Homi Bhabha, she discusses an impressive range of materials. Each chapter focuses on a different object for analysis, including archival images, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, government documents, works of literature and film including Tarzan, the Regeneration trilogy, and Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman.

One of the strengths of Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal lies in Emberley’s method of analysis. By drawing connections between seemingly disparate histories, she attempts to create new ways of thinking about them. At times, these connections are tentative and so their affinities can be difficult to grasp. Still, each chapter impressively reveals different and unexpected points of contact between her objects of study. In the context of the IRS TRC and reconciliation in Canada, her reading of archival images in Chapter Five, “The Family in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Aboriginality in the Photographic Archive” may be the most significant. Here she discusses the role of the colonial archive, particularly family portraiture, in constructing ideas of Aboriginality. The archive has been transferred online and the ability to digitally arrange the images through the search function allows Emberley to see the production of the family through a new lens. Although she recognizes the limitations in attempting to re-read these images, she also believes that an attempt at resignification may also signal a shift from the position of imperial spectator to a new form of witnessing.

Although Emberley and Episkenew’s books are not specifically about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they demonstrate the multitude of approaches in engaging Canada’s colonial history. Together, the three texts discussed here provide different points of entry from which to advance discourses of decolonization and reconciliation in Canada.


Naomi Angel is a doctoral candidate in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her research, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, focuses on cultural memory, visual culture and processes of memorialization. In particular, she focuses on the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. For more information, visit her research blog: http://tracingmemory.com/