The Unseemly Underbelly of Reconciliation

For more reading on reconciliation and residential schools see 20 Books that Will Change How You Think About Canada.

According to Roy L. Brooks, “we have clearly entered what can be called the ‘Age of Apology’” (3). Now more than ever, governments are embracing models of justice that forgo retribution and work towards facilitating peaceful coexistence in what Jacques Derrida named modernity’s “ceremony of culpability” (29). Since 1990, fifteen nation states have incorporated “reconciliation” into Truth Commissions aimed at redressing historical injustice, while other countries, such as Australia, have built the concept into the national imaginary–and economy–via elaborate displays of regret (sorry days, reconciliation walks, sorry books). But it is no longer clear if reconciliation is an agent of healing; as it grows and mutates out of the Cold War it is becoming a political tool mobilized towards the aims of settler colonialism and the neoliberal economy.

Reconciliation, as it was defined in the post-Cold War era, is a sociopolitical act of reunification (within the borders of a nation state) between parties rend apart by historical injustice—such as genocide, political “disappearances” and other State inflicted violences. According to Eric Doxtader, reconciliation is “that moment in which endless cycles of conflict give way to the hope for “unity in difference.” In Canada, where, as of this writing, reconciliation has found its most recent field of proliferation, “reconciliation” is advertised as the means towards “a better, stronger” ( nation state. The post- Cold War shift from retributive justice (revenge) to restorative justice (rehabilitation) is generally seen as a positive shift in the global political field. Doxtader writes,

Talk of [reconciliation’s] potential is widespread, and calls for its practice are now heard as a serious alternative to realist doctrines that offer little solace to those caught in the grip of total violence. While worrisome to those who believe that atrocity demands strict retribution, reconciliation now enjoys a certain presumption in some quarters, a belief that it has a definitive role to play in resolving particular forms of conflict. (380)

In its nascent forms, developed in Latin America and South Africa, reconciliation was part of a transformative politic, a means to redress the traumatic history inflicted by an overthrown regime (for instance, Pinochet’s Chile or the National Party’s Apartheid South Africa). As an operative function of Transitional Justice (TJ), which “provides recognition of the rights of victims, promotes civic trust and strengthens the democratic rule of law” (International Centre for Transitional Justice website), reconciliation spoke to the complex and often inextricable power structures behind political violence, allowing for a more subtle treatment of perpetrator/victim relations that was based in convalescence as opposed to vengeance. As opposed to denouncing, exiling or killing an enemy, reconciliation provided a space to admit (tacitly) that a perpetrator was often beyond retribution–in the fullest sense, given his (almost always “his”) overwhelming influence in state politics and power. Pinochet is the key example here: while the citizens of Chile demanded an inquiry into the “disappearances” inflicted on their loved ones and neighbours, Pinochet’s deeply rooted connections to Chile’s military and the international community (Margaret Thatcher was an open supporter) made him untouchable in the strictest sense of vengeance. The Rettig Report (or Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación) was a means to to respond to the demands of the general public while respecting the influence of the former dictator. In this sense, reconciliation was not a step away from the stratagems of realpolitik, the dominant politic of the Cold War era, but a reaffirmation of power based primarily on practical and material factors and consideration. 

That being said, reconciliation was still a powerful shift away from power politics towards a a more human, personal engagement with historical injustice. According to Martha Minow, “moving beyond statistics to real people of blood, flesh and tears, a commission that gathers individual testimony can present human consequences of atrocities that are otherwise unfathomable and overwhelming” (76). The shift away from shows of brute force towards systems that addressed the complexity and nuance of the human condition made reconciliation a prevalent political tool, particularly for an international community still reeling from power politics and the threat of mutual nuclear destruction.

However, as it continued to proliferate in colonial states, most recently, at the time of this writing, in Canada, reconciliation was removed from the transitional contexts that originally provided for it, generating the potential for the concept to be recuperated into settler colonial power structures. As David Garneau (Métis) notes, in settler colonial states, the addition of the prefix “re” to conciliation presupposes an ideal state that never existed, discursively eradicating Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. According to Garneau,

Re-conciliation refers to the repair of a previously existing harmonious relationship. This word choice imposes the fiction that equanimity is the status quo between Aboriginal people and Canada… This construction anaesthetizes knowledge of the existence of pre-contact Aboriginal sovereignty. It narrates halcyon moments of co-operation before things went wrong as the seamless source of harmonious origin. (35)

Similarly, for Taiaiake Alfred (Kahnawake), reconciliation, as it is currently being conceived in Canada, is just another moment in the country’s long list of assimilation policies, for instance The Gradual Civilization Act; The Indian Act; the Hawthorne Report and The White Paper. Attached to this lineage, reconciliation is a way for settler Canadians to acknowledge their history—in the ways demanded by liberal white guilt—without contending with that past in any significant, material way:

Canadians understand implicitly that reconciliation will not force them to question what they have done, but it will allow them to congratulate themselves for their forbearance and understanding once Indigenous peoples—or, to be precise, using the language of the conciliatory paradigm, Aboriginal peoples—are reconciled with imperialism. (Alfred 183)

While Alfred does not disagree with coexistence in principle, he is critical of the way in which “reconciliation” presupposes the space of conciliation in a settler colonial paradigm as idealism. In his view, Canada’s reconciliation program is based on the idea that Indigenous peoples and Settlers find the terms of their agreement in a space that the latter controls and defines. As such, reconciliation assimilates Indigenous world views and weakens claims to sovereignty. Glen Coulthard (Dene) identifies this assimilative impulse as a “rendering consistent” with state ideology Indigenous claims to land and self-determination. For Coulthard, who draws from Alfred’s work in his own analysis, reconciliation, as it has developed in Canada out of the the government’s response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), is a means of depoliticizing Indigenous history, action and peoples, reiterating the assimilative ideologies of the Indian and the White Paper. Gathering Strength:Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan which Coulthard address below, was the name of the 1998 report that the government released in response to RCAP:

Rather than affirm Aboriginal title and substantially redistribute lands and resources to Indigenous communities through an renewed treaty process, or to recognize Indigenous autonomy and redistribute political authority from the state to Indigenous nations based on the principle of Indigenous self-determination, Gathering Strength essentially reiterates, more-or-less unmodified, its present policy position as evidence of the essentially just nature of the current relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state.

As Coulthard identifies, Gathering Strength,  reiterates and rephrases a colonial position bent on eliding inherent Indigenous rights while projecting the appearance of introducing progressive state morality into its legal machinery. As Coulthard puts it, The use of the term “inherent” [in Gathering Strength] is nonsense when considered in light of the scope of the policy, as there s really nothing “inherent” about the limited range of rights that Canada claims to recognize.”

For Alfred, rather than acknowledging the imperialist ideology that supports it, reconciliation speciously represents itself as an idealist category, which, under the auspices of benevolence and goodwill, facilitates assimilation and colonial hegemony. Alfred’s argument is thus that reconciliation fails and should be abandoned, not because coexistence itself is impossible, but because “reconciliation” elides what is in itself a violence against Indigenous peoples. What is at stake in Alfred’s critique, and what this book argues is at the basis of contemporary reconciliation studies is a deeply embedded failing of Western epistemology: idealism. As Bertrand Russell famously wrote in his 1950 Nobel Lecture, “much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power” (8). While reconciliation was not a term that Russell was contending with directly here, the implications of his assertion in a contemporary political field are deeply resonant. There are two important ways to consider “idealism” in the episteme. According to Rey Chow, who develops a significant critique of the concept in Ethics After Idealism,

First, it operates in the sense of idealist philosophy, the critique of which we have learned, among others, from Marx and Engels. Essentially, idealism in this instance refers to what might be called mentalism, the tendency that treats the world as the result of ideas, which in turn are construed as the products of the human mind. Second, idealism operates as the tendency to idealize—to relate to alterity through mythification; to imagine the ‘other,’ no matter how prosaic or impoverished, as essentially different, good, kind, enveloped in a halo, and beyond the contradictions that constitute our own historical place. (xx)

While the two senses of “idealism” are obviously intertwined and interrelated, the second is of primary importance in a critique of reconciliation. What is at stake in the latter instance is an analysis that disconnects the category from the history, language and ideology that it is born out of, producing it as ideal or epitomic subject. That subject is thus “mythologized,” or rendered free from the contradictions that undergird it. In this sense, “idealism is the act of idealizing—of envisioning and asserting goodness and perfection in the thing of person perceived” (41).

Reconciliation, as it is configured in “age of apology,” is an ideal insofar as it is extracted from its historical/political origins and cast into what Jacques Lacan calls “the service of goods” (318), the State enforced definition of morality that always already operates via the production of capital—a double entendre that Lacan plays with in his use of “goods.”[1] For Lacan, who is also contending with Western idealism, State morality “is no-doubt a tidied up, ideal order” (315), but gestures of liberation, emancipation or reconciliation are always undergirded by an economic imperative: “the essential point,” Lacan says of State ideals, “is carry on working. Work must go on” (315). In this order acknowledgment, apology, forgiveness, redress and reconciliation are possible as long as the capitalist machinery of the State is always in motion. Economic constancy is one of the issues that are most at stake in Canada’s reconciliation environment. A nation without ambiguities and contradictions is simply a better business partner. As such, reconciliation is a sound investment. As a Canadian government official admitted to Carole Blackburn:

we just need to get on with developing British Columbia. We can’t with this unresolved aboriginal rights and title issue out there. So we’re looking for certainty so we know what the rules are and can get on with business, developing the province. (587)

As Blackburn makes clear in her work, reconciliation in Canada is not first and foremost about achieving a utopic ideal of coexistence. Rather, “resolution” is about erasing the contradictions that interfere with business. Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee), Chaw-win-is (Nuu-chah-nulth) and T’lakwadzi make a similar argument. According to them,

Given an overarching desire to secure a stable land base to facilitate corporate investment, the Government of Canada, as well as certain provinces, including British Columbia, have begun to use the language of reconciliation in negotiations with Indigenous peoples (for example, in the B.C. Treaty Process as well as in the proposed ‘New Relationship’ legislation) in order to establish the ‘certainty’ of a land claim in such a way as to facilitate the extinguishment of original Indigenous title to the land. (145)

As both pieces of the above research exemplify, economic and political stability are the key goals in state discourse that is built on settler colonial ideologies. Reconciliation is thus predicated on the machinery of the settler colonial nation state or, as Derrida puts it, “friendship or community remains that of service rendered [to the State], the liturgy of public service” (Politics of Friendship 203), but in settler colonial reconciliation the relationship between materialism (goods) and friendship is elided beneath the rhetoric of forgiveness, harmony and healing.

As Chow points out, what makes idealism a potentially dangerous concept is the way in which it is mobilized as an “essentially good” category. Ideologically speaking, idealism is a way to distract from the self-interest and violence that is carried out by its proprietors under—and as an effect of—its good name. Drawing on Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of totalitarianism, Chow unpacks how idealism perpetuates violence while simultaneously indoctrinating the system of goods that Lacan identifies:

Typical of totalitarian rule’s self-representation and self-legitimization is a kind of language, verbal or visual, which proclaims/presents a notable, respectable idea/image of ‘the people.’ The point of this kind of language is to seduce—to divert attention away from the ruler’s violence and aggressivity at the same time that sympathy/empathy with the good idea/image is aroused. Totalitarianism thus exemplifies the problematic of privileging imaginary identification that for Žižek lies at the heart of idealism. This idealism functions as if the conscious level of articulation/representation is all there is. We say/show this (good image), therefore we are this (good). The success of such idealism comes from the collaboration of those who spontaneously identify with the things they consciously hear/see. (43)

When speaking of reconciliation, idealism is not necessarily an indicator of a totalitarian state (although, in chapter four I illustrate how reconciliation and totalitarianism are connected), but the connections that Chow is drawing here are nonetheless pertinent. For Chow, as for Žižek, idealism is a means for political power to continue inflicting the violence and aggressivity that sits at the basis of state formation, not by meting out further violence and aggressivity, but rather through a formal representation of “goodness,” with the ultimate (and ever receding) horizon being what Immanuel Kant called “perpetual peace.” However, according to Lacan, whom Zizek draws heavily on here, “nothing indicates that even at that limit the problem [of violence] will disappear… Either they imply that the properly statest values of the State will disappear, that is organization and policing, or they introduce a term such as the universalist concrete State, which means no more than supposing things will change on a molecular level” (318). By privileging the symbolic—that is the arbitrary space of the signifier—the slippage between the representation of “good” and its material impacts is elided, with the latter speciously coming to stand in for the real of political intervention. In Lacanian terms, idealism, as a continuation of politics, provides the ornamentation necessary to distract from the violent structure of the system that provides for it. The authoritarian promise of a “universalist concrete state,” or “perpetual peace”—that is to say any reconciled nation—is not a promise to Indigenous or minority groups to eliminate the material structures that initially led to division (as in settler colonialism), but rather a promise to recuperate power for the dominating class in a culture that trades in empty gestures towards equality and multiculturalism.[2]

To argue that “reconciliation” is an idealist conceit is to suggest that the concept has been primarily conceived outside of the history that it was born out of. Reconciliation is idealism in that it is represented as an imagined future “enveloped in a halo” (Chow ibid). Richard Wagamese perhaps makes this point most succinctly in his essay “Returning to Harmony.” According to Wagamese, “it is a big word reconciliation. Quite simply, it means to create harmony” (146). Lewis B. Smedes makes a similar point, although he puts the halo on reconciliation by illustrating the destruction that will occur if we do not embrace it: “the alternative to reconciliation,” he writes, “is, in the end, a ceaseless process of self-destruction” (169). As I demonstrate in this book, Smedes comments on reconciliation are connected to a larger discourse of forgiveness, which predicates its “goodness” on the mutually assured destruction that will occur without it. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who headed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “the only way we can be whole, healthy, happy persons is to learn to forgive” (156). There is “no future without forgiveness,” Tutu suggests in the title of his autobiography. Forgive, reconcile or forsake your humanity. Even Hannah Arendt, who argued so strongly against the humanization of Adolf Eichmann suggests, “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, … we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell” (2). While withholding forgiveness may be a punitive action in Arendt’s case (a reading that aligns this quotation much more comprehensively with Eichmann and Jerusalem), the upshot remains the same: forgiveness is the means to escape the trappings of the past and meeting the horizon of reconciliation.

Because of its firmly entrenched position in an idealist order, reconciliation is a fraught area of critique. As Derrida infers, “no one would decently dare to object to the imperative of reconciliation” (50). Indeed, it is evident that reconciliation has introduced a marked shift in intrastate politics—interrupting cycles of violence that may have otherwise only self-perpetuated. Reconciliation has provided closure and redress for many survivors and victims of historical injustice and it has done much, politically, emotionally, and financially to heal rifts between communities while providing the conditions necessary for families to live their lives without the perennial fear of violence. In its rise to prominence since the late 1980s, reconciliation has made an immense contribution to the way in which the world contends with historical violence and gives voice to the subaltern. For this reason it is often spoken of by scholars of Transitional Justice as a “messianic paradigm” ( However, without detracting from the major contributions it has made, politically, culturally, ideologically and even aesthetically, reconciliation needs to be considered outside of its potential for inducing harmony (or repelling destruction) and considered in relation to a broader field of ideology—not disregarding “harmony” but considering the ways in which “harmony” is being mobilized politically, as a tool of settler colonialism.

[1] “biens” in French, which holds the same double connotation.

[2] See Himani Bannerji Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism, and Gender. Bannerji makes a compelling argument against multiculturalism as a means of recuperating state power from racialized minorities in Canada. She argue, “no critique of hegemonic relations can take place by taking for granted the concepts of ‘the community’ and ‘the nation’ or by accepting the notions of ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ at their face value” (10).


  1. hey dave, this project sounds great. love this line: “a promise to recuperate power for the dominating class in a culture that trades in empty gestures towards equality and multiculturalism”. looking forward to it.

    as an aside, it also reminded me of this article on “decolonial realism”:

    1. Thanks Corey. The decolonial reslism article looks great. Love to chat more about it sometime.

  2. Reblogged this on .

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