The Theatre of Regret: Establishing the Politics of Reconciliation after World War II

An immense wave of anti-colonial and anti-imperial activity, thought, and revision has overtaken the massive edifice of Western empire, challenging it, to use Gramsci’s vivid metaphor, in a mutual siege. For the first time Westerners have been required to confront themselves not simply as the Raj but as representatives of a culture and even a race of accused crimes–crimes of violence, crimes of suppression, crimes of conscience.
-Edward Said (95)

With good reason, many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been treated with scepticism and suspicion by critics and activists. In settler states such as Canada, in which “postcolonialism” is more conceptual than practiced, reconciliation can seem especially suspicious. As Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young argue, the program of reconciliation that Canada has initiated “must be seen as another rhetorical manoeuvre designed to obscure … the moral and financial accountability of Euro-Canadian society in a continuing record of crimes against humanity” (3). For these critics, the function of reconciliation is to “talk us [Aboriginal People] out of our justifiable anger; to put some time between the ‘wounding’ and the present; to trick us into accepting our psychic murder as restitution” (64).

As a researcher, I agree that those studying and participating in reconciliation must be ever-vigilant and cautious of government intentions. However, it is too short-sighted to insist that every TRC is entirely directed at promoting state interests. Governments are not one-dimensional villains interested only in maintaining power and increasing wealth, just as those who are being redressed are not one-dimensional victims mired in suffering and poverty. While I argue that researchers need to be sceptical of political reconciliation, at the same time one must be willing to accept that many political actors actually are committed to healing and the more compassionate elements of reconciliation. In fact, compassion may be the primary goal of a government TRC. Even if there are ulterior motives, it is exceptionally unlikely that any government official would say otherwise. A more nuanced critique illustrates the ways in which compassion itself results in harm; the ways in which reconciliation can be understood as what Louise Bernice Halfe calls a “med-sin” (Blue, 30). Regardless of the intention of a governmental policy direction, individuals and groups can seize the term in question and use it for their own political ends. Indeed, another (very clichéd) way of putting this is that “the master’s tools can take down the master’s house.”

The deeper issue that arises out of reconciliation is often that the program of healing has the potential to inflict its own injury. Indeed, as Kevin Loring illustrates in his play Where the Blood Mixes,[1] Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission can reawaken pain and suffering that some Residential School survivors would rather leave buried. In this sense, “reconciliation” is an agent of harm that doubles as a remedy. Blood tells the story of Mooch and Floyd, victims of Canada’s Residential School system, who are now middle-aged men living in a small town and spending most of their time in the local pub. The plot of Blood is derived out of the announcement that the Canadian government will be providing compensation for any survivors that can prove that they attended one of the facilities. As the bartender of the pub informs Mooch and Floyd, “[p]eople are getting compensated. I guess the government and the church are finally going to compensate people for what happened at those Residential Schools” (emphasis in the original, 24).

While financial redress means that Mooch and Floyd will be able to make minor improvements to their lives, as Floyd is quick to point out, the compensation offered is distributed on a pay-for-pain system in which survivors must manifest their pain for public consumption: “it depends on how bad it was, eh. Most people are getting about fifteen grand. If it was real bad, you get lots more” (24). In this system, what Canadian restitution rewards, and thus ultimately provokes, is victim testimony that manifests suffering on the deepest level possible. Ultimately, the effects these memories have are of the same (if not greater) consequence than the compensation itself. As Mooch puts it, compensation is great, “But you gotta talk about it, though. That’s the thing, eh? You gotta talk about what happened” (26). Indeed, the demand that one produce grief and pain in order to receive redress contributes to a folding of experience in which the time of the event itself is omnipresent. From Mooch’s perspective, within the Canadian reconciliation system it is difficult to contain the abuse suffered in Residential Schools in the past: “it happened yesterday, it happened today, it’ll happen tomorrow. Every day is every day” (58). In this sense, compensation for survivors and Canadian risks inflicting further suffering on the victims because the politics of redress, which take on the form of dispensing compensation here, do not take into account their bifurcated agency.

My aim in this chapter is not to reiterate the difficulties that Loring points out in his work, but rather to illustrate the complexity of the politics of reconciliation and the links these politics have (or, more to the point, do not have) to materialism. By invoking a materialist approach to reconciliation, I argue that in its movement from Nuremberg, to Yugoslavia, South Africa, Australia and eventually Canada, reconciliation has become a performance for performance’s sake, which risks eliding the lived realities of historical injustice, such as the psychological distress that can resurface through redress and the intergenerational effects of trauma. Initiated by the Nuremberg trials, a new era of conflict resolution has begun in which politicians must put their regret for historical injustice on display at the expense of devising and implementing programs and policies that address and redress past injustices. The result of the theatre of regret is a “sorry” which acknowledges historical injustice, but also threatens to dilute the impact of apology and reconciliation by over-emphasizing the performance of regret as opposed concrete structural change.

The fact that Canada is the inaugural “First World” country to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the first liberal-democracy to host this particular form of conflict resolution, makes it an important point of study for those interested in reconciliation, peace-building and transitional justice. How Canada builds on the legacy of past tribunals, Truth Commissions and TRCs, including Human Rights movements in Yugoslavia, Chile, South Africa and Australia, and adapts this history for its own purposes, will play a large role in shaping the future of reconciliation and its political implications. In what follows, I will map out how the most prominent and influential examples of political conflict resolution intersect with and diverge from one another, beginning with the Nuremberg trials and moving towards reconciliation movements in Yugoslavia, Australia, South Africa and Chile. To examine these seminal instances of conflict resolution I use reference to the tribunals, Truth Commissions and TRCs held in these countries, reading them alongside Where the Blood Mixes and Frances Reid’s documentary film Long Night’s Journey Into Day. I then illustrate where Canada fits into the history of reconciliation and the contemporary international model. Ultimately, I demonstrate Canada’s unique position in this genealogy and the ways in which “reconciliation” is conceived in post-Nuremberg states. From an historical perspective I argue that Canadian reconciliation represents a culmination of redress politics which privileges political performances over the materiality of lived conditions, such as the psychological damage caused by compensation. This is not to suggest that politics cannot have very real material effects in an environment. Indeed, what I hope to make clear in this chapter is that the Nuremberg trials initiated a “theatre of regret” in which politicians must stage national remorse for historical injustices and that this theatre draws attention away from the pain and contractions that are implicit to apology, forgiveness, redress and reconciliation.

1.1.        The Nuremberg Legacy

Reconciliation as it is known today developed out of the Nuremberg trials. These hearings, in which former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals, took place between 1945-46 and were prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal (IMT)–a body composed of two judges from each of the Allied powers. The authority of the IMT stemmed from the London Agreement of 1945, which gave the tribunal the authority to declare any individual, group or organization criminal under the following charges:

1.) Conspiracy to wage an aggressive war

2.) Waging aggressive war

3.) War crimes

4.) Crimes against humanity

On October 1, 1946, following 216 court sessions, twenty-two verdicts were handed down. These verdicts sentenced twelve of the defendants to death by hanging and the remainder to various terms of imprisonment. The trials came to an end in the spring of 1949 and were lauded by supporters as “one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason” (Justice Robert Jackson qtd. in Ehrenfreund 13). In order to pass its verdicts, the tribunal overruled almost all of the key arguments offered by the defense, including the contention that only a state, and not individuals, could be found guilty of war crimes, and that the trial and adjudication were ex post facto (retroactively effective or forceful). However, inasmuch as they devised a precedent for charging Human Rights violations, the Allies also initiated a structure of morality in Nuremberg that would need to be continually reinstated in order to remain viable. Human Rights Law, in this argument, is based on repetition of precedent, as opposed to a universal Truth.

The Nuremberg decision had major implications on the way the world perceives and administers punishment for “war crimes” and on how governments would/could treat Human Rights violations thereafter. As Desmond Tutu discusses throughout his work, “the Nuremberg paradigm” (8) is a central, albeit contested, model for all following commissions. Nuremburg provides the legal foundation for Human Rights and a model for publically addressing historical injustice which set the stage for reconciliation politics. Indeed, Norbert Ehrenfreund connects Nuremberg to the Human Rights legacy in his analysis of the trials:

Just weeks after the sentences were carried out following the first Nuremberg trial, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the Nuremberg principles on December 14, 1946. This was followed in 1948 by the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man. Six months later, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is often called the bill of Rights for the World, a fitting description. These were all products of the Nuremberg precedent, all declarations by the international community that Nuremberg law was alive. (123)

As Ehrenfreund indicates here, out of Nuremberg the international community is first given the legal structure to address Human Rights abuses and the politics to begin a process of redress for their abuse. However, at the same time, Nuremberg initiates the political pressure to conform to the Human Rights discourse it “discovers.” Nearly all of the major institutions and bills, such as the International Court of Justice, International Bill of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, which now provide the infrastructure for dealing with historical injustice, arose out of Nuremberg.

Furthermore, these trials introduced the language of Human Rights on which the entire edifice of modern conflict resolution and reconciliation itself is now based. Article six of the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) defines “Crimes Against Humanity” as,

namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civil population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated. (Ehrenfreund 121)[2]

London Charter sanctions have now been adopted into the constitutions of most countries and, as of 2002, these sanctions are enforced by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Truth Commissions and TRCs are founded on the definitions provided by the IMT. Canada’s own TRC was developed out of Nuremberg mandates to prohibit racial/religious persecution, one of the central issues concerning Residential Schools. Obviously, it is the act of creating precedent, and thus laying the ground on which future actors could work toward reconciliation, that makes Nuremberg such an important part of conflict resolution and Canada’s own TRC, which aims to identify the “systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity” (Mandate, section 1, line f).

Still, despite the massive support to prosecute the Nazis, the Allies were not applying a Law or enforcing legal consequences for war crimes; rather they were staging a new production of law. Indeed, regardless of the chief prosecutor’s appeal to the Kellogg-Brand Pact[3] as a foundation for the tribunal’s charges, in 1947 “Crimes Against Humanity” could not be anchored to any legal or historical reading of international politics. It was therefore only a “crime” insofar as the Allies named it as such. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it,

No matter how many books are written or briefs filled, no matter how finely the lawyers analyzed it, the crime for which the Nazis were tried had never been formalized as a crime with the definiteness required by our legal standards, nor outlawed with a death penalty by the international community. By our standards that crime arose under ex post facto law. Goering et al. deserved severe punishment. But their guilt did not justify us in substituting power for principles. (qtd. in Ehrenfreund 54)

As the Supreme Justice helps to point out here, the disavowal implicit in the Nuremberg trials is that “Crimes against Humanity” are founded on what Jacques Derrida calls “the simulacra of legalization” (“Force of Law,” 295). That is to say, despite the consensus that the Nazis on trial deserved punishment, there was no legal way to justify that punishment. In fact, on a purely technical level, punishing the Nazis via the law was, in a strictly juridical sense, more criminal than the crime itself. International law clearly states that, “if a person commits an act at a time when there is no law against it, the person should not be held liable” (Ehrenfreund 52). Thus, the Nazis were guilty only via some form of anachronism in which they set a precedent for a law that they retroactively transgressed.

As such, the Nuremberg trials were not dependent on the accurate and rigorous application of established regulation. Rather, the tribunal was reliant on what Catherine M. Cole calls the “spectacle of legality” (169). To put it differently, with the world watching, Chief Justice Robert Jackson, head prosecutor for the Allies, had to suspend his audience’s disbelief in the validity of nullem crimen sine lege[4] by demonstrating that the defendants were a priori guilty of a moral crime. This was achieved via an elaborate legal event in which Allies and Nazis were drawn out as distinct representations of good and evil, respectively. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt notes, these trials were constructed so as to directly challenge the liberal position which maintains that we can “discover […] an ‘Eichmann in every one of us’” (113). Depicted as other (or even a banal other), the defendants were thus capable of inhuman acts that had, until this point, been unaccounted for in either natural or positive law. As such, it was necessary to draw new boundaries to account for their actions, even if this meant breaking the law to do so.

As Derrida argues, it is only through this use of theatrics in Nuremberg that today’s parlance on Human Rights has come to have any direct impact in the international judicial forum. According to him, Nuremberg founded and sanctioned the discourse of morality that political actors continue to appeal to today:

Even if words like ‘crime against humanity’ now circulate in everyday language. [sic] That event [the Nuremberg trials] itself was produced and authorized by an international community on a date and according to a figure determined by history. This overlaps but is not confounded with the history of a reaffirmation of rights, or a new Declaration of Human Rights. This sort of transformation structured the theatrical space in which the grand forgiveness, the grand scene of repentance which we are concerned with, is played, sincerely or not. (Cosmopolitanism, 29)

Derrida provides us with the tools to think more concisely about how and why Nuremberg marked the beginning of a new moral epoch, in which state politicians (such as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper) are compelled to perform certain principles of “human dignity.” For Derrida, Nuremberg structures a grand scene of forgiveness in which political actors are obliged to repent for historical injustice in a public forum. As such, Nuremberg sets the stage, so to speak, for the cascade of tribunals, Truth Commissions and TRCs that the world has witnessed in the modern era and generates the discursive space in which “reconciliation” is to be grounded.

While Nuremberg provides the foundation for modern forms of conflict resolution, Derrida’s logic is much more complex than simple cause and effect. For him, the echoing of Nuremberg, heard in modern tribunals, truth commissions and TRCs, is required because the phrase “crimes against humanity” is neither historical nor legislative, but rather performative, in that it creates a state of affairs in its utterance. Ultimately, what Derrida is suggesting is that “crimes against humanity” is not a Truth with universal meaning–even though it now circulates widely as if its meaning were self-evident. As Derrida puts it, “with the Nuremberg Tribunal, the international institution of a juridical concept such as the ‘crime against humanity’ [became] a ‘performative’ event of a scope still difficult to interpret” (Cosmopolitanism, 29). Indeed, the performative implicit to Nuremberg is so difficult to read because of the breadth of its implications in politics, interstate relations and basic moral interaction between individuals. Who has to be sorry and for what remains a question obscured by the omnipresent demand to integrate apology into the very structure of state politics.

In his evocation of “performative” in reference to Nuremberg, Derrida is borrowing from the linguist J.L. Austin, who defines this particular type of speech act as “the uttering of the sentence [in this case ‘crimes against humanity’]… which again would not normally be described as, as ‘just’, saying something” (Austin 5). “‘Just’ saying something,” in Austin’s conception is merely reporting on a phenomenon as the subject encounters it in the world. The performative, however, actually cause phenomena in its utterance. What makes the performative so evocative for a study of Nuremberg and reconciliation is that the utterance “crimes against humanity” does not name or describe something; rather, insofar as it is “felicitous,” or successful, it brings something into being and creates and orders the behaviour that follows. Indeed, for Austin, “the whole point of having such a procedure is precisely to make subsequent conduct in order and other conduct out of order” (Austin 44). Indeed, the judicial sentence is, in some respects, the sine non quon of performative utterance for Austin.

Nuremberg is thus a “felicitous” performative insofar as it establishes the modern convention of Human Rights law. As Judith Butler puts it, “a felicitous performative is one in which I not only perform the act, but some set of effects follows from the fact that I perform it” (17). In other words, the felicitous performance creates a new way of responding and interacting with the world. In this case, “crimes against humanity” takes on a special importance, insofar as “the force of the utterance” (Austin 33) actually creates the effects that make the terms of reconciliation iterable as such.

However, as with any performative, Nuremberg is effective only insofar as it continues to generate a new code of moral conduct out of its inception. It is only in its reiteration that the necessity of the Allies’ “laws” are established and the general public can continue to suspend their disbelief in the validity of nullem crimen sine lege. While the felicitous performative brings into being a set of new effects in order for the category itself to be maintained as a viable ideological order, it must be repeated, or restaged, ad infinitum. As Butler puts it, “a structure only remains a structure through being reinstated as one” (Excitable, 139). “Crimes against Humanity” thus becomes a convention in which each utterance is informed by its echoes. To put it differently, it is only in the reiteration of “crimes against humanity” that this utterance gains its force as a legal and moral category:

If a performative speech act succeeds … then it is not because an intention successfully governs the action of speech, but only because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices. (Butler, Excitable 51)

What makes a performative successful, or felicitous, is not the aim behind it, but the authority it garners from a tradition of similar actions. It is repetition, not “truth” that makes it viable. What Nuremberg helps to demonstrate, then, is that the authority of reiteration is, temporally speaking, a two-way process. Because the tribunal was not founded in a tradition of Human Rights, it gained its authority after the fact, thus determining its legitimacy via subsequent commissions which demonstrated the validity of the initial break from law.[5]

As such, in order to maintain the foundation of the edifice, the “structure” of “Crimes against Humanity” needs to be continually re-enacted on an international stage so as to maintain its force as Law. The massive wave of tribunals, including Canada’s own TRC, retroactively determines the Allies’ transgression as just. Hence, the Nuremberg Legacy is not simply a set of laws and institutions, but more importantly the beginning of a set of performances that continually revitalize, recode and galvanize an ideological determination of Human Rights. Materialized as law, this ideology is a powerful tool to address historical injustice which forces government agents to take responsibility for past actions.

However, political performances of morality do not necessarily amount to ethical change. Indeed, the most striking example of performed morality is also the first example of modern conflict resolution in the TRC lineage. Idi Amin’s infamous “Commission of Inquiry into ‘Disappearances’ of People in Uganda Since the 25th of January, 1971” (commissioned in 1974) was conceived by Amin as a means to address political “disappearances.”[6] Under Amin’s regime it is estimated that somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people were murdered or “disappeared.”[7] In response to these crimes, the commission was staged as an attempt to investigate and report on violence and bring peace of mind to the families of lost loved ones. The obvious conflict of interest in this commission was that while it was mandated to investigate Human Rights abuses, prepare a report that would outline these mistreatments and suggest how to redress them, the investigators worked under, and made recommendations to, the very government it was examining. Further, although most hearings in Uganda were public, a report was never published. A confidential copy was handed over to Amin, who continued to rule via political repression, ethnic persecution and extrajudicial killings. As such, any conclusions that did not align with Amin’s administration were quickly and violently quashed.

Despite how calculated it may look from a contemporary perspective, Amin’s gesture towards Human Rights was enough to soothe the economic superpowers of the time, who, at this point, were still heavily advocating for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, later to become the World Trade Organization) and the trade decisions made in Tokyo in 1973.[8] Indeed, as a direct result of Amin’s Commission, Uganda was able to escape the threat of coffee boycotts from the West–coffee being its primary source of trade revenue–and reverse opinions set in motion by the U.S. withdrawal from Kampala in November of 1973.[9] As the Amin example helps to demonstrate, international pressure to perform the politics of reconciliation does not necessarily amount to material change for the victims of crimes against humanity. In fact, the performance, in this instance, can actually work as a substitute for ethical change. Amin’s duplicitous politics make explicit the ways in which the politics of reconciliation can be employed towards self-interest. However, the stakes of re-performing Nuremburg ideals, and thus substantiating Human Rights Law, were simply too high for Commissions of this sort to abandon. Amin’s Commission was thus written off as an anomaly in the reconciliation genealogy.[10] The 1986 Truth Commission: Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights in Uganda, helped to cover up Amin’s abuses of Human Rights principles and recover the international potential of Nuremburg law.

Following Amin’s Initial Commission, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY, 1993) made the most significant contribution to maintaining Nuremberg law. The ICTY was quick to acknowledge the importance of the performative in substantiating the notion of Crimes against Humanity instituted after World War II and it established a firm regiment for implementing its primary mandates:

The United Nations, which over the years has accumulated an impressive corpus of international standards enjoining states and individuals to conduct themselves humanely, has now set up an institution to put those standards to the test, to transform them into living reality. A whole body of lofty, if remote, United Nations ideals will be brought to bear upon human beings. Through the Tribunal, those imperatives will be turned from abstract tenets into inescapable commands. (First Annual Report of the Yugoslav Tribunal. Qtd. in Scharf 215, my emphasis)

This passage from the ICTY’s inaugural report emphasizes the necessity of performance in the maintenance of Human Rights. Without some event to ground these “abstract tenets,” morality never enters into the force of law. What is at stake here is the materiality of language, the making concrete of abstract claims so that they have a real bearing on human life. Giving “living reality” to language is accomplished through its reiteration, breathing new life into that body of law by evoking it in new contexts. This is also a way of saying that performativity and materiality need not be strictly opposed, that, indeed, the materiality of the performance of justice/reconciliation is in its performativity–what it does as a “saying.”

Indeed, the ICTY was followed quickly by a similar tribunal for the Rwandan genocide (1994). As Michael P. Scharf argues, “the creation of the Rwanda Tribunal showed that the machinery designed for the Yugoslavia Tribunal could be employed for other specific circumstances and offences, thereby avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel in response to each global humanitarian crisis” (227). This “machinery” was eventually made into a tool of international governance. On April 11, 2002, the International Criminal Court was ratified by ten countries, bringing the total number of ratifications to sixty. As of this writing, 116 states are members of the ICC, including all of Southern Africa and nearly all of Europe. Grenada and Tunisia are the most recent states in which the Statute has entered into force.[11] Canada made its own contribution with Bill C-19, the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act (CAHWCA), and became the first country in the world to adopt comprehensive legislation based on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The weight of the ICC is complemented by a growing number of Truth Commissions and TRCs which take up Human Rights issues through new and “progressive” approaches that parallel Nuremberg principles. Following Derrida and Butler, however, I argue that the Nuremberg trials also generated a space in which the recital of morality supersedes responsibility to the law. In order to maintain an international definition of morality, states have to conform to and repeat this performance; thus, after Nuremberg, political actors are caught up in a political space in which nation states are called upon to perform specific attitudes in order to maintain a specific category of Human Rights.

While maintaining Human Rights as a structure is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor, the drive behind this compulsion to repeat threatens to obscure the lived conditions of people living in the wake of historical injustice. Amin established that it was necessary to perform morality to the world after Nuremberg, but he also made it clear that political performances of regret could be empty gestures, devoid of any real change for the citizenry they were composed for. As performances, Tribunals, Truth Commissions and TRCs are not only about “finding the truth”–punishing perpetrators and redressing victims–but on a larger scale, they are about (re)establishing an abstract moral order as a living body of international law. In terms of theory, then, there is potential for some confusion between the materialism of language (making abstract moral ideas “matter”) and the materialism of lived conditions (the subjective impacts of reconciliatory exchange). The making “real” of Human Rights discourse is one way of summating what I call the philosophical materialism of reconciliation. This is not to say that there is a strict delineation between “performance” and “reality.” Indeed, part of my argument here is that performativity constitutes reality insofar as it provides the frame through which an otherwise incomprehensible wave of information is processed. However, what I am suggesting is that this “frame” is not, despite our desire to see it as such, independent of ideology. In the Nuremburg paradigm, language is made into a “living body” and, as I illustrate above, is identified in the discourse as law made “alive” (Ehrenfreund) or morality transformed into “living reality” (Yugoslav Tribunal). The difficulty with the reiteration of Human Rights is that while it materializes law, making it alive, in its repetition across borders it also risks eliding the personal and societal nuances of particular instances insofar as it is determined as a Truth, rather than an historically/ideologically established means of interpreting the past.

1.2.        Turning to South Africa

As opposed to the model of performance and forced repentance found in the ICTY and the tribunal system, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions seek to bypass the ethical dilemmas of the Nuremberg script by finding the means to involve the perpetrator as much as possible in the act of reconciliation, thus helping to relieve him or her of the role of “enemy.” As Everett Worthington puts it, the legal procedure endemic to the tribunal, “is designed without any attempt to minimize suffering; rather, it is all about fairness and justice” (254). Thus, rather than widening the gap between victim and perpetrator by alienating him or her from the community, TRCs work at bringing parties together in a new, cooperative environment under a model referred to as restorative (as opposed to retributive) justice. According to Martha Minow:

Unlike punishment, which imposes a penalty or injury for a violation, restorative justice seeks to repair the injustice, to make up for it, and to effect corrective changes in the record, in relationships, and in future behavior. Offenders have a responsibility in the resolution. The harmful act, rather than the offender, is to be renounced. (91)

Minow’s description helps to define the difference between retributive (tribunal) and restorative (TRC) justice and explain how these systems contribute to reconciliation.[12] Both retributive and restorative models of justice appeal to performance in order to affect the terms of reconciliation that they strive for. Tribunals achieve this by applying strict character delineations, which, both figuratively and literally, alienate the “enemy” from the community. However, while retributive justice works to delineate strict roles and scripts for its characters, restorative justice works to collapse these distinctions by developing new relationships between the actors. Consequently, the latter is often seen to be a much more progressive, humanist approach to conflict resolution because it “acknowledge[s] the shadow sides of oneself and one’s group” (Cohen 271) rather than confirming preconceived notions of good/bad, victim/perpetrator.

As such, Desmond Tutu’s major contribution to reconciliation is in his use of restorative justice which stems from his recognition of the performative limitations of the Nuremberg model. According to the Archbishop, the Nuremberg paradigm functions by “bringing to trial all perpetrators of gross violations of Human Rights and letting them run the gauntlet of the normal judicial process” (19)–an analysis that evokes the theatrical elements of the tribunal in which new actors are simply inserted into an old play. Tutu rightly acknowledges that it was only because the Allies were the clear winners of World War II that they were “able to impose ‘victor’s justice’” (20), which allowed them to blithely assign participants to static roles, be it Nazi monster or enlightened prosecutor. As Tutu suggests, “the Germans … accepted [their positions] because they were down and out and the victors, as it were, could kick the vanquished even as they lay on the ground” (20). Because Nuremberg casts its characters in terms of absolute “good” and “evil”, it was relatively easy for the Allies to construct a scene in which retribution was not only fitting, but also necessary.

Relative to Nuremberg and Yugoslavia, however, Tutu’s form of “justice” is not informed by character assignment, but rather by more flexible notions of reconciliation in which “one sees the other as having acted in a way as human beings do, out of his or her own perceptions” (Worthington 75). As opposed to retributive models, Tutu’s TRC is empathy-driven, aimed at collapsing the fourth wall, not only between the victim and the audience, but, more radically, between the victim and the perpetrator. What Tutu popularizes with the South African TRC, is forgiveness-based justice, which, in its emphasis on identification across victim/perpetrator borders, collapses rigid distinctions between self and other. Indeed, one of his most resonant statements, aside from the title of his book itself (No Future without Forgiveness), is that “the only way we can be whole, healthy, happy persons is to learn to forgive” (156). Here, forgiveness is presented as the only model that will facilitate healing and reconciliation.

To be clear, I am arguing that TRCs are not alternatives to Nuremberg-like tribunals; rather they are modifications of it. The type of forgiveness Tutu is demanding is in itself performative and is still in service to the manifestation of a moral order brought to life by Nuremberg. While the “living body” of morality he wants to corporealize is certainly based on religion, it is no less a case for substantiating the ethical claims made following World War II (which were themselves based in a certain Christian ideology). As the Archbishop states in No Future, “theology helped us in the TRC to recognize that we inhabit a moral universe, that good and evil are real and that they matter” (86). As a Christian, Tutu’s notion of “morality” begins from the imperative to “love thy neighbour,” which forms the baseline against which all interpersonal interactions are measured. However, this imperative is not grounded in any law outside of Christian faith: “this mercifully is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter, and when you contravene the moral laws of this universe, one day you will pay” (248). The key word in this statement is “matter;” in his conception good and evil are given corporeal significance via their performance on an international stage. They “matter” insofar as they generate subjects that can be guaranteed as such. Tautology notwithstanding, the TRC manifests that morality and also uses that manifestation as proof of its claims to existence.

The performance of forgiveness is where analysts can locate the most explicit link between the ideological imperatives of Nuremberg and South Africa. This link becomes clearer if researchers are able to break down clemency into separate categories. As Worthington points out, forgiveness operates on a continuum in which there are three key stages: hollow, decision-based and emotion-based. To briefly summarize, hollow forgiveness is that which is offered under societal duress when the victim actually feels no forgiveness at all. In this stage, one forgives in logos only and even then only because one is forced to; on the other end of the continuum, emotional forgiveness is offered freely, when the victim actually feels an end to his or her pain and resentment. Emotional forgiveness is akin to a release of the stress, anxiety and hatred held against a perpetrator. In this stage the body reflects language; the forgiver feels no discrepancy between logos and soma.

Finally, decision-based forgiveness falls somewhere in between hollow and emotional. Decision-based forgiveness, “is defined as the cognitive letting go of resentment and bitterness and need for forgiveness. However, it is not always the end of emotional pain and hurt” (Worthington 21). This intermediate category between hollow and emotional suggests that forgiveness is not simply a black and white category. While there is certainly forgiveness and unforgiveness, there is also a curious combination of the two in which one can affect forgiving qualities while still holding on to one’s pain and anger. This affect is not so much a lie, but rather a performance so personal that it actually works to suspend the disbelief of the actor him/herself, thus generating a split subjectivity in which s/he is simultaneously (un)forgiving.

Arguably, the forgiveness Tutu requires from South Africans can be classified as decision-based (and thus bifurcated, as opposed to whole) simply because one cannot demand that a suffering individual let go of their resentment toward a murderer or the pain they feel over the loss of a loved one. Indeed, it is precisely at the point of the imperative that forgiveness will always exceed rationality: no matter what the reward (or punishment), mourning is not a process that any individual, no matter what their authority, can compel a subject to undertake. At the same time, however, the Archbishop is also not obliging South Africans to forgive, which would amount to hollow forgiveness and only perpetuate fear and anxiety. Rather the Archbishop is encouraging them to forgive by promising them a richer, healthier life when they do so: “[forgiveness is] the greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community” (Tutu 35). When forgiveness is unpacked into a series of differently enacted stages, it is clear that Tutu is asking the victims of apartheid to act as if they have forgiven, to perform compassion and goodwill to the enemy without abandoning their physical and emotional pain. This is one way to flesh out the meaning behind Derrida’s “grand scene of forgiveness:” in privileging decisional forgiveness, Tutu and TRC proponents who follow in his path call for a performance that clearly separates action from the subject him/herself. What the subject does on this stage is not a reflection of an inner state of being, but it is a contribution to an idealized moral order that promises to heal pain after the ideal itself is accepted.

Indeed, by emphasizing the performance of forgiveness as a means to achieving a healthy, reconciled nation, Tutu evokes what Slavoj Žižek identifies as the Pascalean formula of “fake it till you make it,” in which the performance of an action will eventually lead to the actor becoming the subject of his/her performance. As Žižek points out, what makes Pascal’s contribution to religious philosophy so interesting is that he does not begin with the idea that belief comes first. Rather habit and gesture, what I am calling performance, instill belief retroactively. In these regards, the famous quote from Pascal is, “kneel and you will believe that you knelt down because you believed” (qtd. in Žižek 306). Here, kneeling does not describe an inward, spiritual act, but rather creates one.

This Pascalean mandate resonates with Nuremberg itself. With no firm precedent in place, the Allies could not operate strictly on the principle that the Nazis were being charged because they were guilty. Rather it was the act of prosecution which manifested guilt retroactively. Tutu’s insistence that South Africans perform forgiveness operates under the same principle. His translation of Pascal would be: “Take on the affectation of forgiveness and you will believe that you have forgiven.” Another way of looking at this is to consider the effect of perpetrators imposing the affectation of repentance on the victims. When the victim sees the perpetrator take on the affectation of repentance, in front of TV screens, before the nation, their families, their friends, and on permanent record, there opens up the potential for the victim to take on the affectation of forgiveness.[13] As such, rather than offering an explanation of how forgiveness emerges, the action itself offers the justification. In this sense, decisional forgiveness manifests a certain ideology of morality, in which victims release their fear and anger towards their perpetrators.

Of course, what makes Pascal’s and Tutu’s performances very different, is that while Pascal calls for a very specific action–kneeling down to pray–Tutu is asking that people perform something that is much more abstract and difficult to capture in a single action or gesture. As such, there needs to be some sort of sujet-supposé-savoir for people to model their actions against. Mandela himself was continually offered up as this model in South Africa. Tutu’s own reflections on the president are pointed in these regards: “he [Mandela] invited his white jailer to attend his inauguration as an honoured guest, the first of many gestures he would make in his spectacular way, showing his breathtaking magnanimity and willingness to forgive” (Tutu 10, my emphasis). However, Mandela’s benevolent “gestures” were still rather broad and parliamentarian and did not provide details on how to hold one’s body, or shape one’s face when in the direct presence of one’s murderer. Arguably, it is on this minutia that the success of a performance hangs; thus other representations aside from Mandela were necessary.

As Cole argues, some of the film from the South African TRC can be invaluable in identifying the subtle details of forgiveness, which were left out of the larger political acts. Cole identifies the hearings for the South African TRC as “good theatre” (180), an attribution, she argues, which made them so successful: “the TRC’s live hearings were affective, and consequently they were effective in facilitating, however imperfectly, a transition from a racist, totalitarian state, to a non-racial democracy” (Cole 179). The issue of “transition” is of central importance in my analysis of Canadian reconciliation and something I will return to momentarily. However, for the time being it is necessary to note that for Cole, film of the hearings acts as an archive, a space to study affect and its contribution to forgiveness and reconciliation.

The documentary Long Night’s Journey, for example, conveys the deep pain of the South African community both through a number of tight close-ups of the faces of the perpetrators and the victims as they confront one another. The cinemagraphic choice replicates the intensity of the face-to-face interactions that took place between victim and perpetrator during the TRC. In fact the face becomes the primary site of the possibility of reconciliation in this film.[14] As one of the victims’ mothers tells her son’s killer, “your face is something I will never forget. And I have no forgiveness for you.” Here, reconciliation does not hinge on the mother’s ability to forget, but rather to alter the memory and see the representation of sincere grief and contrition. Thus, inasmuch as the face represents and holds the past, it also becomes the field on which reconciliation and forgiveness is played. As such, the intimate and beseeching gaze of the camera in Long Night is searching for signs of forgiveness and remorse in the “actors’” faces so that the audience is compelled to partake in this decision-making process. The film allows its audience to dissect and augment this performance in ways that are not strictly possible in a typical face-to-face encounter. Close-ups, for instance, provide the viewer with the microscopic detail that constitutes the actions of a forgiving (or unforgiving) subject. In this sense, the gaze of the camera in Long Night can be seen as a representation of the way in which the outsider privileges performance in reconciliation. What is at stake, then, is the “actors’” ability to perform their regret, to make it visible to the gaze. In making it available for close study, “actors” and the filmmakers provide a model from which future subjects can draw their own decisional performances, thus furthering a state in which the theatre of regret actually begins to constitute forgiving subjects and materializing a particular category of morality. In this sense, Long Night creates the very conditions in which these extraordinary acts of forgiveness and repentance can occur.

This is not to say the individuals in Long Night are faking their pain, or that the trauma of apartheid is some sort of act. What I am suggesting, however, is that the way in which the camera seeks to locate and magnify emotion in the documentary is indicative of the ways in which an international audience comes to find the legitimacy of reconciliation in South Africa in the perceived sincerity of a performance of grief and remorse. As in my reading of the performer “faking it” until he or she feels forgiveness, spectators can also be understood as suspending cynicism in order to find genuine grief and remorse.

1.3.        Political Performances of Regret

Cole argues that the healing effects garnered through performance have been, up until this point, largely regarded as a side-effect of conflict resolution. Her work suggests that governments and policy makers need to make performance more central to the direct goals of the world’s various commissions and that scholars need to shift the focus of their analysis towards the theatrics of TRCs. In doing so, Cole is clearly drawing from the same genealogy of reconciliation that I am here: she makes clear distinctions between the types of performance found in Nuremberg versus South Africa and demonstrates the progressive nature of Tutu’s hearings in how they utilize it. However, as I gestured towards briefly above, Cole’s analysis focuses on transitional justice–“how emerging democracies reckon with former regimes” (Arthur 331)–whereas I am focusing on the settler justice found in Canada. Indeed, the Cole essay I am drawing from here is entitled, “Performance, Transitional Justice, and the Law: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (my emphasis). The primary difference between transitional and settler justice, which has thus far been under-represented in the literature, is that that TJ is a political response to the crimes committed by a government which is no longer in power, while SJ is implemented by the same government that committed the transgression. As I discuss below, this essential difference has a major impact on the ways in which reconciliation is and can be articulated.

The relation of transitional justice to contemporary reconciliation studies is an issue that requires much more attention. Some of the most recent examples of reconciliation (Australia and Canada) have not taken place inside of a transitional justice paradigm, but are the consequence of previously democratic states coming to terms with past crimes. Inasmuch as reconciliation in places such as South Africa and Yugoslavia has targeted transgressions that took place outside of democracy–for instance after apartheid or following a coup d’état–the performance of “settler reconciliation” has a much different set of effects and consequences than its counterparts in transitional nations. These differences must be parsed both with and against the TRC genealogy.

The way in which political performances of reconciliation can distract from the lived conditions of victims is more evident if analysis is shifted from South Africa to the world’s longest running official reconciliation initiative, found in Australia. In 1991, the Australian government unanimously voted to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) in order to promote the “process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community” (Reconciliation This initiated a ten-year period of “official reconciliation,” leading to the establishment of Reconciliation Australia, which continues to “monitor Australia’s progress towards reconciliation so that government, business and the community can take on the responsibility to back up words with real commitment” (Reconciliation Conceived as a way to “address progressively” (Short 491) Australia’s Aboriginal/Settler relations, Australian reconciliation has been passed to four Prime Ministers and continues to be an unavoidable fact of Australian politics. As of this writing, it is a twenty-year process.

From a bird’s eye view, “reconciliation” is an integral part of Australia’s political infrastructure. Aside from CAR and Reconciliation Australia, the country also hosts Australians for Reconciliation (AFR), the National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC), and, most recently, the Reconciliation Action Plan, initiated by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in June 2011. Australia also boasts the Division of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (similar to British Columbia’s department: the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation).[15] On February 13, 2008, four months before Stephen Harper, Australian Prime Minister Paul Rudd issued a formal apology to the survivors of the Stolen Generations,[16] adding another layer to this extended process. However, the largest, most moving performance of reconciliation came in May 2000, when some 500,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge for the reconciliation walk. The walk was organized so that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians could show their support for the reconciliation process (which was by this time almost a decade old).

This particular event is best remembered for a giant sky-written “Sorry” etched in the horizon over the Sydney Opera House. The “Sorry” contrail is perhaps the best metaphor for Australian reconciliation. While the word captured the imagination of the country and the world for a brief moment in time, it quickly faded away. The explicitly ephemeral nature of this apology can be connected to the meager impact Australian reconciliation has had on the larger world of conflict resolution. As Damien Short argues, “Australian reconciliation does not warrant a mention in any of the major texts on reconciliation despite the fact that it has been the longest running official process” (17). This is due to the fact that while it is constantly being written out for all to see, reconciliation in Australia is nothing more than a series of vaporous politics, which, like mist in the sky, have no material impact on the victims they claim to address; rather, they simply affirm Australia’s contribution to the maintenance of Nuremberg ideology and guarantee that state a position in the “new international morality” (Barkan ix). What audiences see here, in its “heavenly” representation, is thus a governmental commitment to reiterating Human Rights principles as an idealist order, while simultaneously disavowing the material consequences of this performance on the subjects it claims to address.

On the ground, however, one sees a very different idea of reconciliation in Australia. By the time John Howard and his conservative Coalition Party came into power in 1996, prominent land claims such as Mabo and Wiki had once again propelled Aboriginal rights into the international spotlight. Thus, for his scene in Australia’s theatre of regret, Howard and his government made yet another performative shift in Australian Aboriginal policy in order to protect political interests and national resources. This time, the state put emphasis on a “practical reconciliation” agenda that focused on ‘individuals’” (qtd. in Short 502). Practical Reconciliation was a neo-liberal tactic designed to undermine Aboriginal rights by focusing on ideas of formal equality and citizenship, ideas which borrowed heavily from the liberal rhetoric of “equality” and “tolerance.” Under this policy, rights were only determined by one’s relation to the state. This form of recognition homogenized the public and precluded any special claims to land or history (including the trauma suffered by the Stolen Generations).

As Aboriginal scholar Larissa Behrendt writes, practical reconciliation was little more than yet another assimilationist policy designed to eliminate the perceived “threat” of Aboriginal rights:

The clear agenda [of practical reconciliation] is one of assimilation and integration. This, of course, is not a new ideology, but a throwback to the paternalistic days when Welfare Boards and Aboriginal Protection Boards dictated the lives of Aboriginal people and their children. It is an ideology that has been used in the past, did not work then, and has not only been rejected by indigenous people, but has left a lasting legacy of disadvantage, trauma and family breakdown that is still plaguing indigenous families and communities today. (qtd in Short, 172)

What Australia helps to illustrate is precisely the grand scale on which the theatre of regret can operate in settler states. “Practical reconciliation” evokes regressive colonialist tropes designed to control Aboriginal people and flatten difference. Yet in spinning out its politics in the theatre of regret, the Australian government is able to couch neo-conservative objectives in the scene of forgiveness demanded by Nuremberg. As such, politics produce a veil of tears used to distort government intentions.

The giant “Sorry” in the sky provides an excellent means to think about performance and the reiteration of Nuremberg principles in settler nations. By contributing to the discourse of Human Rights, Australia makes material the abstract notions of morality that contemporary nation states must participate in. State politics operate beneath this word, which becomes the structuring element of the national symbolic. However, just like skywriting itself, “sorry” gradually fades and is forgotten while conditions remain the same. The scale of the performance demonstrates the commitment to perpetuating Nuremberg ideologies and the new international order, which demands this gesture as a sign of belonging to a larger notion of international morality. The walk for reconciliation and the skywriting itself demonstrate how grand and ostentatious this performance has become. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely the size of the performance that distracts from how reconciliation is actually operating on the ground, in the lives of the people the ideal claims to address. At the level of lived experience, reconciliation is being levied against the people it claims to represent despite the fact that it also helps to shape the lives and experiences of a community in positive ways. Permutations of reconciliation, such as “practical reconciliation,” help to make explicit the ways in which governments attempt to conform to the theatre of regret while eliding deeper ethical concerns.

1.4.        Canada and the Performance of Transitional Justice

In tracing the legacy of reconciliation across Nuremberg, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Australia and Canada, there is at least one major difference in the latter two examples that demands explicit attention. Specifically, Nuremberg principles have traditionally been used to enforce measures of transitional justice for states beset by violence–the primary examples being El Salvador, Argentina, Chile and South Africa.[17] In transitional settings, the most immediate and material response to historical injustice is the removal of the government which perpetrated the crimes and the installation of a new, usually democratic, administration. The succeeding Truth Commission or TRC is both a means to redress the past and facilitate a smooth changeover to new leadership. Transitional Justice is a means of addressing “how emerging democracies reckon with former regimes” (Arthur 331, my emphasis).

The first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which took place in Chile under Patricio Aylwin Azócar, is cited as one of the seminal cases of transitional justice and the first successful instance of political reconciliation.[18] Aylwin was the first president to be democratically elected following the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet, it is estimated that 3,000 people were killed, 80,000 were interned and at least 30,000 were tortured. Aylwin’s election campaign thus centered on truth, justice, and addressing political prisoners and reparations for these crimes, a platform which, in the spirit of the Cold War and détente,[19] won him the election, much to the surprise of Pinochet and his supporters.

Before Aylwin, the international model for conflict resolution, constructed and reformulated in El Salvador and Argentina, had been the Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad), which namely focused on discovering the truth about the disappearances of citizens during military rule. Breaking from the precedent set by his neighbours, however, the new Chilean President established the Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación (National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation) in March of 1990. By making peaceful relations a necessary compliment to finding truth, Aylwin significantly altered the shape of conflict resolution for all those who would follow and instantiated the TRC as a political means to smooth the transition into democracy. Indeed, Tutu takes up this model in his own commission as a means to facilitate Mandela’s own installation into power.[20] As such, political reconciliation came into favour in the international community as a handmaiden to the implementation of a democratic system. After the Commission’s report was completed, Aylwin announced its main findings on public television and offered a formal apology on behalf of the government for the acts of its agents. In this initial TRC, then, political transition and apology were mutually constitutive, each one allowing the other to exist.

However, there has been a major shift in the politics of reconciliation since Aylwin. Despite the slippage between reconciliation and transitional justice in recent studies,[21] quite obviously neither Australia nor Canada has experienced any substantial government transition as a result of the crimes against humanity that they seek to address. Liberal-democracy is both the wound and the salve in these nation states, an agent that is at once capable of harm and healing. In this sense, the stakes of material change are quite different between settler and transitional-justice reconciliations. Insofar as the agent of healing is often self-same to the agent of harm, liberal-democracies are at greater risk of falling into empty displays of contrition on a much deeper level than their transitional counterparts.

Any further study of reconciliation in Canada or other settler states needs to take into account the fundamental differences between transitional and settler reconciliation. Whether political transition is (or is not) occurring, or has (or has not) occurred, plays a major role in shaping what the subsequent reconciliation will look like. On the one hand, transitional reconciliation is developed out of governmental transformation (or even revolution). On the other hand, settler reconciliation is founded in the promise of change and performances that convince the audience that while the government remains the same, it will now act differently. To put this another way, without explicit political change to support it, settler reconciliation is performance only for the sake of performing; it differentiates itself from its former iterations, not by conceding the stage to new political actors, but by promising to take on a different role. As Australia helps to demonstrate, the anxiety around the distinction between liberal-democracies can result in a performative over-compensation, which elides the lived conditions of reconciliation as many Aboriginal people experience it.

Following this line of thought, I argue that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for Canadian Residential Schools represents a particular performative choice for Canada:

It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and to the strength of their cultures.  Regrettably, many former students are not with us today and died never having received a Full Apology from the Government of Canada. The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation. Therefore, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system. (“Full Apology,” web)

There is little that I or anyone else can do here to demonstrate the degree of Harper’s sincerity in this speech (although I try to open up this question in more detail in chapter three). However, sincerity is not necessary to illustrate the performance implicit to this apology. First, as Harper himself acknowledges here, the “Full Apology” is being offered on Canada’s biggest political stage, the House of Commons. The convention of parliamentary performance carries with it the gravitas of a sanctioned action, providing a deeper opportunity for the audience to suspend their disbelief and buy into the scene as materializing real change in Canada’s symbolic order.

Second, as per my argument above, Harper makes sure to clearly distinguish his government from those that committed the crimes against Aboriginal people; in doing so he performs the transition that in other states founds the apology. Whereas transition and reconciliation are mutually constitutive in Chile and South Africa, in Canada, Harper uses the latter to validate the performance of the former, thus re-establishing the “simulacra of legalization” that Derrida identifies. In the passage quoted above, he clearly delineates his party from those who refused to apologize: “the government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation.” Further, in earlier passages he also demonstrates a change in attitude from those who perpetrated the original offending legislation: “today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” What Harper is essentially doing here is reiterating the political transition that El Salvador, Chile and South Africa all based their reconciliation initiatives on as a nearly immaterial performance: since there is no actual political transition, he performs one, differentiating himself from, or disavowing, the political power that he has, in actuality, directly inherited. Beginning with a performance founds the subsequent reconciliation project in a much different, and potentially unstable, political ground. Canadian reconciliation relies on a language and a history that cannot readily be transported to a colonial system and thus radically alters the trajectory of reconciliation politics at a global level. The “simulacra of legalization” in settler justice is thus a reconciliation that is always already distinct from political change, but nonetheless relies on the history of reconciliation qua transition as a way to validate its existence.

  • Reconciliation: Building Bridges

In closing, it needs to be made clear that while reconciliation can, indeed, be used as a rhetorical tool to distort “the moral and financial accountability” (Chrisjohn and Young 3) of perpetrating cultures on their victims, insisting that reconciliation as such is only a tool of oppression elides the subtlety of what is at stake. Neither victim nor perpetrator is as one-dimensional and thus cannot be discounted in a single gesture towards self-interest. As I argue above, “Reconciliation” can be both an agent of harm and healing simultaneously. To return to Where the Blood Mixes, Loring’s reflections show how the reparations carry the potential for harm within them. The image of the bridge that Loring uses in Blood is also helpful for thinking through the bifurcated signification of reconciliation. Aside from the pub, in which compensation is first introduced in the play, a bridge and the beach surrounding it form one of the central settings in the play. Indeed, it is at the foot of the bridge that Loring ends the play: “The wind increases and the low mournful song of the singing bridge strengthens. Mooch exits, leaving June standing alone looking down at the salmon…” (90).

It is not surprising that Loring uses a bridge as a setting in what is ostensibly a redress play. The bridge is a perennial metaphor in reconciliation theory. It captures the notion of connection that reconciliation founds itself on: the idea that society can construct a means to unite two previously isolated masses. As Barkan puts it, “reconciliation, [is] meant to bridge … disparities” (234). The image of the bridge permeates reconciliation literature: Worthington uses the bridge on the cover of his text Reconciliation and Forgiveness, Donald Shriver identifies forgiveness as “A Bridge Across Abysses of Revenge” (essay title) and John Hatch, in his essay “Reconciliation: Building a Bridge From Complicity to Coherence in the Rhetoric of Race Relations,” argues that “reconciliation is potentially the construction of a bridge” (738). To borrow from Anne Anlin Cheng, reconciliation can be defined philosophically as “the attempt to walk (and live) on the rickety bridge between the self and other” (189).

Representing the connection between two detached spaces, the bridge is the primary image used to evoke reconciliation as a social construction that facilitates the passage of culture, commerce and capital. For the most part, this metaphor is used unproblematically by critics and without reference to the word’s history or use in specific linguistic spaces. What an untroubled use of “bridge” can lead to, however, is a distorted sense of exactly what reconciliation means and how it is viewed by the communities involved. Detached from language and history, a bridge may indeed represent the best means of expressing new connections built between disparate communities. Yet, when articulated as part of a specific history, “bridge” reveals a deeper violence implicit to the notion of reconciliation. In literature, bridges often serve as a dangerous liminal point between disparate locations. Occupying the space of the bridge for too long can result in violence and death. Arguably, by using the bridge in Blood, Loring is drawing on a history of reconciliation that expresses the fear and anxiety that accompanies spaces of connection between Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian communities.

In Canadian literature, the figure of the bridge is an extremely problematic site. John Richardson’s Wacousta: or, The Prophecy; A Tale of the Canadas, often considered to be Canada’s first novel,[22] established the space of connection between European and Aboriginal people as deeply fraught and connected to violence and death. Wacousta is set in the mid-eighteenth century in an English fort, built deep within the Canadian wilderness. Early on in the lengthy novel, the settlers are trapped inside the walls of the fort following an outbreak of violence between the English and the Natives. Wacousta is very concerned with binaries: interior/exterior, civilized/savage, nature/city, all of which are primarily represented in the figure of the fort and the wilderness beyond its walls. As Michael Hurley argues, “everything on the European or British side of the river is a right-angled monument to rationality” (90). Inversely, everything outside is savage chaos. As such, a palpable anxiety surrounds any potential deconstruction of these borders: any breach in the fort is of the utmost cause for alarm and crossing too far “outside” results in “civilized” characters turning “savage.”

However, the anxiety over borders and binaries is most directly confronted in the figure of the “bloody bridge” (22), on which the major plot points of Wacousta take place. When the fort is seized by the Native population early on in the novel, the majority of the attack takes place “across the drawbridge that communicated with the fort” (98). Further, when one of the European soldiers is arraigned for treason–the climactic event at the end of the first volume–his execution takes place on the centre of the bridge. As Hurley argues, in reference to the execution scene, “the historical failure of the two worlds to ‘only connect’ is symbolized in Wacousta by the casket in the exact centre of that fatal ‘Bloody Bridge,’ at once historic and mythic. Here civilization and its structures intersect with nature and its forms” (90). As Hurley helps to point out, in Wacousta, at the intersection between “civil” and “savage” one finds only death, confusion and violence. In Wacousta, the point of reconciliation is thus conceived as a potentially deadly space which connects European and Native communities but also invites violence and ideological confusion.

Drawing on Wacousta and the fraught image of the bridge, Thomas King’s novel Truth & Bright Water also revolves around abloody bridge.”[23]Truth is a story about two towns separated by a river, “the railway town on the American side, the reserve in Canada” (1). The only way to move between these towns is across a decrepit bridge, which was abandoned by the state workers when it was only halfway constructed, and “the toilet,” a large bucket connected to a cable stretching across the water, which one pulls oneself along. While the metal girders of the bridge stretch across the water, the decking is incomplete, making passage possible only for those who are willing to traverse the girders over the river. As such, the majority of the characters use the toilet to travel between communities, preferring not to risk the danger of the incomplete government structure. Indeed, from the beginning of the text the bridge is represented as a dangerous, and unfinished, point of transition: “The bridge was halfway completed when construction came to a halt. One day, the crews were working on the concrete forms for the decking. The next day, they stretched chain-link fencing across both ends of the bridge, packed up all their equipment, and disappeared” (39).

Only half-finished, the bridge in Truth is a troubled point of connection between communities. It allows for passage, but also creates the potential for injury for those who try to cross it. Indeed, at the beginning of the text the narrator, Tecumseh (named after Richardson’s hero, the great Shawnee chief), and his friend Lum move “gracefully, effortlessly along the girders” (16). For the boys, who use the spot as a place to talk and play, the bridge represents a way to escape family life and to find independence: “below, the fog hangs low and velvet on the river, but on the bridge, everything is star bright and clear” (16). At the level of the bridge, which rises above their day-to-day existence on the reserve, Tecumseh is able to see past the cloistered environment of his home town towards a different future.

However, by the end of the text, King makes it clear that in attempting to “bridge” the gap between communities, the boys are putting their lives at risk. The final image of the bridge in Truth is that of a corpse, rotting from neglect and indifference: “The decking only goes so far before construction stops and the planks and plywood come to an abrupt halt. From here, as far as you can see, the bridge is nothing more than a skeleton, the carcass of an enormous animal, picked to the bone” (270). Confronted with the figure up close, now depicted as the rotting skeleton of an unfinished project, the bridge is no longer a symbol of hope, but a reminder of the state’s failed attempt to connect communities.[24]

The structure itself reeks of death and decomposition: “’You smell it?’ says Lum. “The whole thing’s rotting” (270). For King, if the bridge is a symbol of reconciliation, it is stagnant and putrefying, a topographical reminder of the government’s disinterest in Native affairs. Indeed, Lum’s final crossing, which directly follows the above depiction of the bridge qua corpse, echoes the death and violence that Richardson inscribes onto the figure in Wacousta. Mirroring the bridge scene at the beginning of the novel, Lum once again “glides along the naked girders” (272)–although at this point he is bloody and battered after a vicious beating from his father. Tecumseh watches his friend move along “the curve of the bridge until it begins its descent” (272) into the opposite town. This is the last that Tecumseh sees of Lum. The crossing signals a suicidal disappearance from the novel and from the town of Truth: “the bridge is empty, and all I see in the distance is the lights of Bright Water and all I see below me is the fog” (273).

As a metaphor for reconciliation, the bridge, as represented in texts such as Wacousta and Truth & Brightwater, is never just a symbol of confluence and easy passage. In these texts bridges represent a deep anxiety over the material realities of connection and the colonial connotations of the bridge itself. Loring picks up on the fraught image of the bridge developed by his predecessors and translates it directly into the discourse of reconciliation. As mentioned above, the bridge, as a setting, is one of the few locales outside of the bar that the playwright places his characters. As in Wacousta and Truth, the bridge is fraught with notions of violence and death that is in excess to any notion of “reconciliation.” Reflecting the suicide scene from Truth, in the final moments of Blood the audience learns that Floyd’s wife, Anna, killed herself by jumping off the structure. Mooch remembers the scene for his wife, June: “All I could do was watch. Anna looked at me, she wasn’t even scared. I watched her fall, all the way. All the way down. When she hit she never came up” (89). As the scene of suicide the bridge in Blood, as in Truth, remains as a permanent symbol of loss and regret for the characters that must cross it. Indeed, Mooch’s pain extends from the fact that the bridge is an unavoidable structure in his life. When he laments, “I cross this bridge every day” (89) he speaks of both the physical act of crossing and the mental act of reconciling himself with the painful memory of Anna’s death. In fact, these words are the last spoken in the play. The audience is left with a symbol of reconciliation that does not only connote connection, transition and union, but also suffering, trauma and death.

As the final set of the play, the bridge is also positioned as a capstone for the narrative and the discussion on compensation. Indeed, following Mooch’s final statement, Loring leaves his audiences with the concluding image cited above. The bridge in Blood is yet another image provided by Loring to think through the implications of political reconciliation and its impacts on Aboriginal communities. Further, as the final image in the play, the bridge resonates not because of its ability to generate confluence–indeed, the audience is never told where it leads–but as a site of memorial and mourning for the dead. Much as the bridge in Truth is structure that eventually divides Tecumseh and Lum, in Blood it acts to divide Mooch and June. The play ends with June alone on the beach while Mooch, overcome by the act of crossing he must participate in again and again, walks away.

What Richardson, King and Loring help to establish is that embedded into the metaphor of the bridge–which is so closely aligned with the idea of reconciliation–are deeper anxieties over border crossings and interconnection. For all three of these authors, at the centre of the bridge metaphor is danger, death and loss, which the bridge does not overcome, but facilitates. It is because of this literal construction of reconciliation that violence is realized in all three texts. The bridge acts as the platform on which this violence is acted out. What the image of the bridge helps to illustrate–once one more closely addresses its implications as a metaphor–is that it is a useful tool to demonstrate that the politics of reconciliation can be designed and constructed to facilitate confluence and peaceful coexistence between disparate communities. However, reconciliation, like the bridge itself, is always already loaded with more significations than those who employ it can account for. Many of these significations can cause further pain and alienation. Thus, attempts to construct a model definition of “reconciliation” risk establishing an infrastructure that, like the bridge in Truth and Brightwater, is incomplete and dangerous: a potential hazard to the community it is ostensibly constructed to serve.

This is not to say that reconciliation is beyond definition, but rather that one must be aware of the potential risks that occur in its construction. In other words, to borrow from Raymond Williams, what is at stake in the definition of reconciliation, and the other “r” words that circulate in the discourse of conflict resolution, is only not the identification of how a word can be retroactively ascribed to define the past, but also how new definitions inflect present and future actions. As Williams puts it, with reconciliation “we are concerned meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” (Marxism 132), not only in how it describes ideology and current world-views.

The bridge is only one figure–a trope rendered into a “structure of feeling” in the Canadian canon–that allows for reflection on the material implications of idealist semiotics. Canada’s own TRC can be located in a history of conflict resolution that extends into the Nuremburg trials and thus necessitates careful examination of a number of such tropes, all of which I cannot cover here. Looking back at Uganda, South Africa, Australia, Yugoslavia and the other countries that developed Commissions and Tribunals out of Nuremburg, one can see the ways in which politics have been built into the maintenance of Human Rights and the development of a modern discourse of conflict resolution grounded in idealist tropes. Governments utilize reconciliation not only as a means to redress historical injustice and to facilitate peaceful coexistence; they also employ reconciliation as a way to bolster political authority (as in Chile) and to protect financial interests (as in Uganda). More often than not, these two, approaches (peaceful coexistence and political authority) are caught up in the same discourse. Like the bridge, reconciliation connotes the idea of confluence and exchange, but this does not mean that another series of significations are not also repressed within it.

Canadian reconciliation may very well be intended to create a more viable, compassionate way for Aboriginal and settler communities to live together. However, without careful consideration, reconciliation will sit like the bridge in Blood: as nothing more than a painful reminder of historical injustice, which does not heal, but further alienates victims from their communities. Material reconciliation insists on research that further investigates the relationship between transitional and settler reconciliation and explores different applications of human rights discourse across the new international morality. In the following chapter I continue my investigation by unpacking Tavuchis’ notion of “the call” in relation to the work of the Cree poet and activist, Louise Bernice Halfe.

[1] Blood was first produced in 2008 for Luminato, Toronto’s festival of Arts and Creativity, the same day that the Conservative government officially apologized to Aboriginal communities in the House of Commons.

[2] There was large debate over the use of a semicolon in the wording of Article 6(C) or the Nuremberg Charter’s definition of crimes against humanity, which draws attention to the importance of language in these movements:

Crimes Against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war[;][,] or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated. (8)

In the English and the French texts, there was a semicolon between the phrase “the war” and the phrase “or persecutions.” Russia had a comma in the corresponding place. The Soviet Union insisted that all texts be replaced with a comma: “As a consequence of this seemingly minor grammatical change, the phrase ‘in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal’ became a limitation on all crimes against humanity, not just persecutions as originally written. This substantially limited the jurisdiction of the Nuremberg Tribunal with respect to crimes against humanity committed before the German invasion of Poland in 1939 (which the Tribunal determined to be the start of the war). While the public perception is that the Nuremberg trial provided a comprehensive account of the Holocaust, in fact that was the one thing the Nuremberg trial was legally precluded from doing” (Scharf 9).

[3] Also known as the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War or the World Peace Act, the Kellogg-Brand Pact was signed on August 27, 1928 by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Weimar Germany and a number of other countries. The pact renounced aggressive war and prohibited the use of war as an instrument of national policy except in matters of self-defense.

[4] No crime, no punishment without a previous penal law.

[5] I am drawing on Girorgio Agamben’s notion of the sovereign here. See Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.

[6] The 1974 Commission is not to be confused with Uganda’s second inquiry in 1986 (which has received much more attention). The full mandate for the 1974 commission has been published by the United States Institute of Peace and can be found here:

[7] See Ullman, Richard H. (April 1978). “Human Rights and Economic Power: The United States Versus Idi Amin”. Foreign Affairs.

[8] The purpose of the GATT Agreement was to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers on a mutually advantageous basis.

[9] When confronted with pressure to boycott Uganda’s coffee trade in order to force Amin into Human Rights restructuring, the U.S., then under the Carter administration, used GATT specifically as a means to argue against interference: “Boycott actions are not consistent with the principles of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trades (GATT). To which the United States is committed as the basis for international commercial relations. Whenever these principles are set aside, their overall authority as a protection for our own international trade interests is undermined. Therefore, as a general matter, we are extremely reluctant to take actions which contradict these principles” (Douglas J. Bennet. Jr. Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations; qtd. in Ullman 534).

[10] See Hayner, Priscilla B. “Fifteen Truth Commissions–1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study.” Hayner argues that, “The 1974 Ugandan commission has been all but forgotten or discounted in history” (613).

[11] Famously, the United States voted against the Statute in Rome, along with six other countries, then they signed on, then they unsigned. They were concerned about a lack of accountability for granting proprio motu to an independent prosecutor.

[12] What is known today as restorative justice is actually a Canadian development. In 1974 two drunken Ontario men vandalized twenty-two properties. Mark Yantzi, the Mennonite probation officer assigned to their case, suggested to the court that the criminals meet their victims and negotiate compensation. Judge McConnell eventually ordered the two offending men to go with Yantzi to meet their victims and negotiate compensation and then come back to the courts with a report on the damage suffered by the victims. According to Marc Forget, “this was the first experience with what came to be known as victim-offender reconciliation programs” (118), which went on to include group conferencing and Aboriginal based methods of reconciliation (i.e. Sentencing Circles, Healing Circles, Peacemaking Circles, Gacaca Courts).

[13] Thank you to Sophie McCall for pointing this out to me.

[14] See Emmanuel Levinas on the ethics of the face-to-face encounter. See also Butler (Precarious) and Peggy Phelan on face-to-face interaction and its application in an ethics of performance.

[15] See also the Ukraine Foundation for Understanding and Reconciliation.

[16] The Stolen Generations are the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian government.

[17] See Hayner, Priscilla B. “Fifteen Truth Commissions–1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study.”

[18] See Paige Arthur. “How ‘Transitions’ Reshaped Human Rights: A conceptual History of Transitional Justice” Human Rights Quarterly 31.2 (2009): 321-367.

[19] Following the Cold War, citizens and academics in both the East and the West began to recognize that an alternative to power politics was necessary to avoid global destruction. Détente (the easing of tensions) signified the new international political climate.

[20] See No Future pp. 28-29.

[21] See the International Centre for Transitional Justice.

[22] See Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Richardson is also believed to be Ottawa on his mother’s side, which also makes Canada’s first novel an Aboriginal text. See also, Catherine Sheldrick Ross Recovering Canada’s First Novelist: Proceedings from the John Richardson Conference.

[23] For more on the connections between Wacousta and Truth & Brightwater see Bruce, Barbara S. “Figures of Collection and (Post)Colonial Processes in Major John Richardson’s Wacousta and Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water.”

[24] Lee Maracle’s well-known essay “Ramparts Hanging in the Air” also develops the figure the unfinished bridge–the ramparts hanging on either side–to draw attention to the fractures in feminist communities. Further, similarly to Truth, Maracle’s novel Ravensong is also set in two twin towns with a bridge between them. All the important events of the novel occur there–including a suicide.

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