Who is served by the reconciliation agenda?

On Friday, March 24, 2017, I heard a lecture by Glen Coulthard at the Organizing Equality conference.

Coulthard’s thesis is that the contemporary colonizing nation-state (in this case, Canada) lives in a contradiction. On one hand, the state is sovereign over its the people, resources, and land. On the other hand, the state simultaneously recognizes the presence and rights of indigenous peoples, its historical role in colonization, and the treaties it has signed along the way. Now the nation-state, the Crown, has a dilemma: how does it continue to extract the resources it wants or requires to compete in the global arena of nation-states? At the end of the day, posits Coulthard, the state can march in and overtly take the resources it wants by force, or it can manufacture a narrative of reconciliation that functions as a political distraction to its inherent economic/resource agenda.

From another talk (November 16, 2011) by Glen Coulthard on YouTube:

Since at least the early 1990s a global industry has emerged promoting the issuing of state-orchestrated apologies, advocating ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ as an important precondition for resolving the devastating social impacts caused by intrastate violence, state perpetuated mass atrocity, and historical injustice.

Coulthard and others argue that the proliferation of so-called ‘Reconciliation Inc’ has a systemically negative impact on indigenous rights. Referring to the work of Leanne Simpson, Coulthard writes:

In the end, the optics created by these grand gestures of recognition and reconciliation suggests to the dominant society that we no longer have a legitimate ground to stand on in expressing our grievances. Instead, Indigenous people appear unappreciative, angry, and resentful… (Coulthard 2014:153-4)

Coulthard et al argue that the politics of indigenous recognition, as trumpeted by liberal democracies the world over, ultimately serve the political interests of states, not indigenous people.

All this raises some provocative questions we all need to wrestle with, like whose agenda is served by reconciliation? Perhaps the only way to begin answering the question is to investigate who is driving the reconciliation agenda. Power is power — and the principal interest of power is maintaining its power — even when it shows up tenderly announcing its heartfelt concern for your identity and apologies for its legacy and history. What better way to keep power centralized than to remind everyone dispensing reconciliation is the prerogative of whoever owns the power in the first place?

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Reconciliation Between Whom?

There are lingering disconnects in my mind when it comes to the discussions of truth and reconciliation in Canada. As an observer, it seems like there is a critical gap between the federal government’s politics/optics of reconciliation on the one hand and the policies that affect the lives of indigenous communities on the other.

To put it bluntly: what does it mean when you are at one moment declaring that “No relationship is more important…than the one with Indigenous Peoples” and in the next moment building a pipeline through their lands against their protests?

Don’t get me wrong, listening and learning from one another in a spirit of reconciliation seems critically important to me, but what good is ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ if you are simultaneously exploiting the resources and poisoning the land of your interlocutor?

I had the opportunity to hear Margaret Buist (Director General for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) speak in London a few weeks ago. During the question and answer period, I brought up this apparent discrepancy and asked for her perspective. Her response was interesting.

She pointed that the federal government is a vast and complex institution. On any given issue, there are competing forces within the system. Ergo while one branch of the government may very well prioritize respect for the nation-to-nation status and autonomy of indigenous communities, another branch may be more concerned with, say, the Canada’s competitive status in the global economy. In other words, it’s entirely plausible that the department of Indigenous Affairs and, say, the Ministry of Natural Resources, or the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, might have competing ideas for how ‘the government’ should conduct its business. After all, what is a bureaucracy if not an establishment of conflicting agendas? And what is more bureaucratic than a federal government?

Upon reflection, Buist’s reply raises more questions for me. What would systemic reconciliation even look like? What would it mean to structurally ‘decolonize’ the agenda of every branch, department, and ministry of the institution that has driven the agenda of colonization from the beginning?

What does reconciliation mean if one or more of the parties are not even reconciled with themselves? Between what, or between whom, is reconciliation being made? In the long run, what is more important: reconciliation between First Nation communities and the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, or between First Nation communities and, perhaps, the Ministry of Natural Resources?

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Canada and Nationhood™

As a nation, Canada has lots of ideas about nationhood.

The present federal government champions the notion of a “nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

The past government passed a motion recognizing “that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” — a nation within a nation.

How is it that the geographical territory we call ‘Canada’ can be the homeland of so many nations?

The answer, I think, is that the federal government of Canada has very few qualms with ‘licensing’ the use of ‘nation’ to particular groups that it needs to appease. But as with most negotiations, the most critical details live in the small print: at every turn, the ‘definition’ of nationhood is determined by, well, the Nation. In Canada, the word ‘nation’ has evolved more or less to become synonymous with groups who have a particular bargaining status with the federal government, but it is still nonetheless the federal government who bestows, grants, or acknowledges the officially sanctioned ‘nationhood’ of its subgroups of subjects.

Last week I heard Al Day, a local indigenous leader, give a talk. He brought up the observation that First Nation communities have little to nothing to do with defining their concept of nationhood. “First Nations” — and what it means to be such a ‘nation’ — is a definition imposed on indigenous communities by the government of Canada. Nationalism and Nationhood, he argued, are mental concepts inherent in the mindset of the colonizer, not the colonized.

On the global, geopolitical stage, nations are defined in practical terms by the juxtaposition of their power vis-a-vis one another. In a word, sovereignty. But within a nation, this idea of so-called ‘sub-nationalism’ must be defined by whatever rules and parameters the central authority deems most expedient. It is a brand of nationhood with caveats. Many, many caveats. Caveats that have been written by — and presumably serve — someone else. (If the terms and conditions of your nationhood are determined by another party, in what sense, exactly, do you consider yourself a nation?)

The lesson here is that it is important to subject politically mobilized language to scrutiny. When a central government defines and negotiates with a certain group as a nation, who retains the power and authority to define their nationhood? And, most importantly, whose nationalism is entrenched in the process? In Canada, we need to have a debate about whether it is the national identity of the ‘nationalizer’ or the ‘nationalizee’ that is served by the rhetoric of ‘nations-within-nations’ and ‘nation-to-nation’ relationships.

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Inclusion as Colonization?

Following up on a post from last September — When Inclusivity is Exclusionary — I wanted to make note of some other articles and quotes related to this analysis that I have come across in the interim.

…the rich diversity of peoples have been denied inclusion while only a privileged group have defined themselves as inclusive… (Tatah Mentan)

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination… What we don’t need is to relegate ourselves to the position of depending on someone else to offer us inclusion… (Kẏra)

In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. (Indigenous Action Media)

The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or “settler moves to innocence”, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity…There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization. The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances. (Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang)

Beyond simply calling for cosmetic diversity…to merely include people of color in untransformed institutions… [recent movements] call for a comprehensive unsettling of colonial logics and institutions. (Jonathan Rosa, Yarimar Bonilla)

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