An Interrogation of ‘Reconciliation’

This is a podcast about ‘reconciliation’ in Canada. We’re thinking about reconciliation in quotation marks because we want to critically analyze the narratives, power dynamics, potential pitfalls, practices, and consequences unfolding around us. (Full episode, 67 minutes)

Panelists

Joe Anton is from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. He is a counselor at the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre.

Summer Bressette is from the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. She is the Indigenous Legacies Project Manager at Museum London.

Cindy Smithers Graeme holds a PhD in Indigenous Health from Western University.

Segments

If you are looking to reference or listen to a topical segment, here are the broad themes we discussed.

A critique of land acknowledgements

What do we make of the increasingly common practice of non-indigenous people publicly acknowledging the traditional territories of indigenous people before public gatherings? (7 minutes)

The personal and the political

What could and should it look like for non-indigenous people to engage politically with reconciliation? (19 minutes)

Let’s talk ‘truth’ before we talk ‘reconciliation’

We consider some ways that the reconciliation narrative can be a tool for the ongoing colonization of people, land, and culture. (12 minutes)

Spaces, power, tokenizing, and colonizing

We think critically about the power and privilege that resides in capacity to create spaces and galvanize attention. (14 minutes)

Follow up

Do you have thoughts, perspectives, or input to add to the conversation? Please leave a note in the comment section below or send me an email at contact@jamesshelley.com. To read more, this site has a number of further discussions about the topic of reconciliation for reflection as well.

Safe space… or ethical space?

Safe space. Brave space. Positive space. I’m wondering: what is an ethical space? Would an ethical space be synonymous with a safe space? Why or why not?

Willie Ermine proposes that the “idea of an ethical space, produced by contrasting perspectives of the world…triggers a dialogue that begins to set the parameters for an agreement to interact modeled on appropriate, ethical and human principles.”

The resentment levied at the safe space movement is often characterized by criticisms about protecting a narrow limit of perspectives to the exclusion of counter or divergent ideas. Safe spaces, the argument goes, curtail the free speech of opposing views, infantilizes those in the space, and turns the rest of the world into a trigger-filled danger zone.

Advocates of safe space retort by arguing that the world is structurally, systemically, and physically more dangerous for some populations than it is for others. Carving out broader places in society to acknowledge each other’s experiences and openly express one’s identity without facing a barrage of anger, insults, and assaults is a right protected by the freedom of association, no less than the freedom of expression.

So what would an ethical space look like to you? Would an ethical space shut its inhabitants out to every variant viewpoint? Would an ethical space allow its inhabitants to be ridiculed for acknowledging or declaring partial or unequal treatment? Do you think a debate about the ethical landscape and properties of a space help refocus the broader safe space debate?

Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship

Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?

The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.

Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.

I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.

I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.

One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?

Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?

Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.

I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.

However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.

Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?

Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.

What do you do when you realize you are the colonizer?

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.