Let’s begin with a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that I become aware that another group of people do not share the same access to material opportunities, cultural perks, and civil rights that I enjoy. Let’s suppose that this segment of the population is historically and regularly racialized, marginalized, or stigmatized by other social groups. (Such as my social group, for instance.)
As a result of this discovery, I realize that people face systemic disadvantages — disadvantages that are mostly alien to my experience. This realization is not only a theoretical idea, but it is the acute awareness that the oppression of others is inseparable from opportunities that I possess (and leverage) as a member of my social class. Put it this way: the very same cards that have been dealt in my favour are simultaneously stacked against other people. I not only see the inequitable, self-reinforcing power disparity at play: I see myself as a player in the equation.
Now, what should I do?
This post is about articulating a hypothetical response to this scenario.
For the sake of the thought experiment, I imagine my range of potential responses as points along a continuum. (Of course, every continuum is an arbitrary model. And this model is surely as flawed as any other. But given these caveats, I share this completely arbitrary idea because it highlights a ‘problem’ I cannot easily reconcile.)
On one end of the continuum, I stand up and declare that I will advocate for you. I have power and resources at my disposal. I will use all the social levers I can get my hands on to make your life better. But in my campaign for the ‘improvement’ of your life, I will militarize my implicit biases: I will inherently assume that I know what you need and want. (And, as it turns out, I think you just want to live more like me!) I proudly declare myself to be a voice for the voiceless — your saviour and your ally. In this, I inadvertently reinforce and amplify the discrepancy between us. Yes, you need me. As I self-righteously claim to ease the burden of your oppression, I only re-entrench myself as the colonizer — a colonizer who is blind and ignorant of the empire and patriarchy that they so dutifully spread with their philanthropy. (Hey, can I get a tax receipt for this, by the way?)
On the other extreme of the continuum, I humbly announce that I will wholly defer to your knowledge. Therefore, You must advocate for yourself. In my deference, I bestow upon you the responsibility of educating me. I am the researcher, and you are the subject. Just as I refuse to speak on your behalf, I also positively refuse to act unless you direct me to act. As a result, you must take up the not insignificant labour of managing me. In my so-called solidarity and allyship, I am a burden. A piece of well-intentioned deadweight. Yes, I will assure a token voice for the plight of your people is always represented. I will champion the input of those with lived experience at every opportunity. I will write policies for your inclusion. I will host your workshops. But the ‘identity labour’ costs hereby fall entirely to you. And along the way your identity is evermore defined by this new multicultural role I set for you. You bear the burden of my endless consultations. Here, again, the power discrepancy is only magnified. I, the so-called woke colonizer, have a new assignment for you: you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity I provide you. Thus, in decrying the disparity of our relative privilege, I enjoy my new privilege of deferring everything to you and excusing myself of any liability for the outcomes.
The ‘poles’ of this continuum present a real problem. To the extent I act on your behalf, I entrench my position as a patronizing member of bourgeoisie performing the same-old song and dance in the hazardous haze of their ignorance. To the extent that I refuse to act without your explicit direction or insist on your volunteer leadership, I effectively abdicate all personal responsibility (and accountability) for contributing to the cognitive and material tasks of reparation and equity. The balance of these two poles is tedious and fragile. How maliciously and subtly the power imbalance tips the scale in either direction. Perhaps the most important ‘test’ for any given action is the extent to which the activity holds these dynamics in balance.
At either end of this continuum, oppression merely switches the garbs of its outer shell. But both ends of the continuum seem to represent the ‘default’ responses of people like me (that is, folks who fancy themselves as advocates and tweeters for the idea of ‘social justice’ from the position of their economic and class privilege). In trying to determine the ‘middle,’ I confront the heart of the complexity at hand: what does it even mean to ‘decolonize’ one’s social position? And if one cannot ‘decolonize’ oneself, does it not follow that another must always be the colonized?
If this model reflects anything about reality, the way forward seems disturbingly foggy. In my commitment to avoid the poles at the extreme, I step timidly towards the centre of the continuum. But what is the centre?
How do we solve this dilemma without parroting the same old platitudes about the importance of ‘active listening’ and ‘building bridges’? How much time must we usurp at our roundtables, panels, and conferences? How do we find the middle of the continuum without merely describing new, normative roles for the oppressed to play in our newly reordered order of things?
At this point, I have come to the tentative ‘conclusion’ that there is no secret solution for ‘solving’ the problem raised by this continuum. The ‘right’ answer appears to be: continue muddling along with as much grace and trust as we can muster. Or, perhaps, revolution. Chucking the ‘continuum’ out the window might be a good start, too. Thoughts? There could very well be no answer key at the end of the book we are writing here. Admittedly, I’m a bit suspicious of people who think they’ve got all this figured out. But I am reasonably confident that the people who are running ahead blind to this inherent dilemma are teetering recklessly close to the historical status quo.
The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.
A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.
Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.
In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.
Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.
Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’
I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.
It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.
As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.
I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time
Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.
The past, it seems, does not exist anymore. It is inaccessible and unalterable. Once the egg is scrambled and fried, it can no longer be reshaped and reconstructed into its oval shell. As far as human perception goes, the arrow of time goes decidedly in only one direction.
But the past also seems very much a part of every moment. The chair you are sitting on came from somewhere in history, but now it is inexplicably part of your present reality. When we react to the past — whether to heal from its scars or celebrate its highlights — we find our immediate priorities being shaped by a history we can no longer access.
The past, even though it is gone, always seems to be part of the present. As T.S. Eilot wrote,
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
For humans, time is about much more than eggs and chairs. Time becomes inseparable from our identities and the narratives we use to orient ourselves in the world. Does our position or role in society shape the way we think about time? Why do different people and different cultures have such distinct differences in the way they think about their history and lineage? After we recorded the podcast, Jasmine minded me of this quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:
social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, researcher, podcaster. His podcast, ‘Talking to Canadians’ (co-produced with historian and PEI-based writer Ryan O’Connor) debuted in January of 2017. Jeremy is also a published editorialist, essayist and poet and his work has appeared in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Europe.
Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani) thinks time is fascinating. Both tangible and abstract, time exists within spaces of paradox, intrigue, science, and folklore. Jasmine does not question whether time is real, but the ways in which it is constructed at different times to be real, and the impact it has on our imagination and existence. She has time, or is it hers to have? Either ways, she will be making the time to talk about time, hoping that in time she will understand time.
Thomas Peace (@tpcanoe) is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College. His research focuses on the diverse ways in which Indigenous peoples in the northeast and lower Great Lakes engaged with colonial schooling and colonial colleges at the turn of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the founding editors of ActiveHistory.ca.