Welcome to the Desert of Reconciliation

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book The Theatre of Regret: Troubling Reconciliation in Canada. Available soon from UBC Press.

In The Marrow Thieves itself, however, reconciliation, as the possibility of structural change, is represented as not just futile, but actually a threat to the lives of Indigenous peoples. French’s birth father provides the most direct evidence of this. Right at the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that French lost his father to settlers when, “in a last-ditch effort to talk to the Governors in the capital,” he, and members of the Indigenous council, are disappeared (and that word is most appropriate here, as it echoes the disappearances in Latin America; disappearances that led to that foundational TRC in Chile). Closer to the end of the novel, we learn more about the details of this disappearance. Miigwaans, who, it turns out, was the council’s guide to the Capital, shares this story with French:

“They had this crazy notion that there was goodness left, that someone, somewhere, would see just how insane this whole school thing was. That they could dialogue. That they could explain the system had to die and a new one be built in its place. Like that wasn’t scarier to those still in the system than all the dreamlessness and desert wastelands in the world.” (141)

In my reading of The Marrow Thieves, this is one of the most important passages in the entire novel. I say this, because it most explicitly outlines the hegemony of capitalism and settler colonialism and the futility of reconciliation within it. What Dimaline makes clear here, is that these are not simply systems that people cannot figure out how to escape, rather, more devastatingly, they are systems that those same people do not want to escape—even when it is know that they harbinger the apocalypse. In an interview with Trevor Corkum, Dimaline hints that the The Marrow Thieves can be read as a reflection of “shallow reconciliation efforts,” but she also states that it is meant to provoke the realization in readers that it is “time that we accept that the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement.”[i] In a Marxist sense, the commitment to extinction that Miigwaans draws attention to is ideology at its most pure: as a system which individuals contribute to even though, and despite the fact, that they realize that system will destroy them, their families, and the world around them.

Against this ideological backdrop, then, Dimaline sets up her critique of reconciliation, and by reconciliation here, I mean dialogue between Indigenous and settler communities that has the possibility of leading to concrete structural change. As represented in the above passage, dialogue between Indigenous peoples and settlers is a complete non-starter in this system; in fact, it is not just a non-starter, it is the beginning of the path towards a new genocide. Because, within the ideology of capitalism and settler colonialism, reconciliation can only function insofar as it feeds that ideology. To quote Glen Coulthard, “without such a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild [Indigenous] nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labour” (“For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die”).

To accept reconciliation then, without being willing to deconstruct capitalism and settler colonialism, is not to look towards a greener brighter future for Indigenous-settler relations as Michael Ignatieff, who argues that reconciliation should be accomplished via financial “rewards… for tolerant behaviour” suggests (“Afterward.” Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity After Violent Ethnic Conflict). It is to look towards the wasteland. If I might borrow from the character Morpheus from the film The Matrix to put punctuation on this point: “welcome to the desert of the real.” The wasteland of conflict resolution in the settler state that Dimaline lays bare in The Marrow Thieves.

Buy your copy of The Marrow Thieves here. You won’t regret it.

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