Forgiveness, “a thousand pound word”: the Literature of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Excerpted from The Theatre of Regret: Literature, Art and the Politics of Reconciliation in Canada

Conceived as re-joining, reconciliation is about groups who have been separated by historical injustice finding ways to cooperatively share space, both literal and epistemological. Apology is one aspect of that dialectic, but forgiveness—the discourse of the survivor—has been instrumental in providing theorists with the ground to imagine reconciliation.[i]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published its final report
in December 2015.

Recognizing the significant role forgiveness studies have had on larger theories of reconciliation is vital to understanding the larger structure of feeling out of which the TRC model is constructed and maintained. That being said, because it is a topic that has been so thoroughly appropriated into theological and academic discourses, it is also necessary to bear witness to the ways in which surviours are grappling with the concept, particularly in the wake of the TRC.     

Richard Wagamese and the Literature of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway author, journalist, and intergenerational residential school survivor, takes on forgiveness in significant and instructive ways in his work, adding necessary complexity and nuance to what he names, in the novel Medicine Walk, as “a thousand-pound word.”[ii] Hailing from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario, Wagamese is the author of twelve novels and the recipient of multiple literary awards, most notably for the 2012 work, Indian Horse. He was also a prolific essayist and journalist, writing Indigenous issues columns and music reviews for the Calgary Herald. Sadly, Wagamese past on at the age of 61 in March of 2017, undoubtedly before he could share all of his insights into these topics.

Forgiveness was an significant topic in Wagamese’s writing and during the TRC he advocated heavily for the healing potential, for Indigenous peoples, of reconciliation. In an essay published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation entitled, “Returning to Harmony,” Wagamese writes about what reconciliation and forgiveness might mean for Indigenous communities:

It is a big word, reconciliation. Quite simply, it means to create harmony. You create harmony with truth and you build truth out of humility. That is spiritual. That is truth. That is Indian. Within us, as nations of Aboriginal people and as individual members of those nations, we have an incredible capacity for survival, endurance, and forgiveness. In the reconciliation with ourselves first, we find the ability to create harmony with others, and that is where it has to start—in the fertile soil of our own hearts, minds, and spirits.[iii]

Wagaemese’s words point to the potential to find peace and good relations out of acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. They look towards the possibility of reconciliation as an articulation of harmony, that is, in my reading of him, mutual reciprocity that will benefit intergenerational residential school survivours. He develops this point more fully in the essay “Truth and Reconciliation”:

We owe these kids [intergenerational survivours] more. We owe them our truths. We owe them our apologies. We owe them a commitment to our healing, however hard and bleak that journey might be. We owe it to them to become an empowered people who have learned the importance of forgiveness.[iv]

As this second passage helps to illustrate, Wagamese believed in moving towards forgiveness and reconciliation, not because of what forgiveness might provide for settlers, but because forgiveness and reconciliation provided much needed space for Indigenous peoples to heal.[v] Indeed, as Coulthard notes, Wagamese articulated reconciliation as a means to “decrease the likelihood of reproducing internalized forms of violence.”[vi] Yet, for all of the ways Wagamese holds up forgiveness in his work, we must also be attentive to the ways in which he holds up truth: in both the passages I quote here, truth is the primary mandate. Truth before reconciliation. Truth before forgiveness.

Medicine Walk

Those who are familiar with Wagamese’s novels know that forgiveness is never won easily by his characters and that truth is always a battle. In Medicine Walk, for instance an Ojibway father, Eldon Starlight, spends an entire lifetime hiding the truths of his life, namely his role in the death of his wife, from himself and his son, Frank. Eldon buries his truths with alcohol and sex and is only able to share them his final hours, as he dies from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by his addiction: “truth ain’t never easy,” Frank’s guardian, “the old man,” tells him. “Especially one you had hung up in you a long time.”[vii]

Indeed, for Eldon and Frank, repressed truth is the hard kernel around which the plot of Medicine Walk turns. Sharing that truth, one that has been “hung up in you a long time,” does not necessarily amount in a moment of reconciliation or forgiveness for Wagamese. Sharing truth is, if it is anything, the possibility of a new beginning for survivours—a way to move forward, now with a more complete understanding of their story.

Indeed, the devastation of repressed truths, of the ways in which they lay waste to individuals and families, is made pointedly obvious in Medicine Walk, which circulates around at least three truths that Eldon is unwilling or unable to share: leaving his mother to an abusive boyfriend, his role in the death of his best friend, and the death of his wife and his son’s mother. Eldon’s inability to process these events, and his need to repress them, has driven him to a life as an alcoholic, which in turn alienates him from his son. The plot of Medicine Walk, is thus Frank accompanying his father to the place where the latter wishes to die.

Along their walk Eldon finally brings himself to share these heavy truths. Indeed,while Eldon’s trauma is real and his drinking undoubtedly a form of self-medication, having an alcoholic as a father is no less damaging or painful for Frank, who has grown up estranged from his family history.

Raised by a non-Indigenous man, Frank also has a limited connection to his Ojibway and Cree heritages, given that his guardian, while a loving and kind man, “can’t teach [him] nothing about bein’ who [he is].”[viii] While Frank has been hungry for a connection to his past and his people, his few encounters with Eldon over the years have been bitter, injurious events consumed by Eldon’s alcoholism. If there is a fourth truth Eldon is repressing, then, it is how he has failed his son, something he wishes to rectify in the last moments of his life.

Their final walk together, at the end of which Frank will bury his father, is construed by Eldon as the act of recompense that Wagamese first articulates in the “Truth and Reconciliation” essay: “I owe,” he tells Frank when questioned about the purpose of their trip together.[ix] More than seeking forgiveness, which is also part of the journey, Eldon’s story is about a fiduciary responsibility to truth and the knowledge that he owes the next generation. 

Richard Wagamese, Medicine Walk

One of the stories Eldon owes Frank is of how he killed his best friend, Jimmy, another Indigenous man from the Blood tribe, when the two were soldiers in the Korean war. When out on patrol, Jimmy is badly wounded and in order to avoid capture (his friend is screaming loudly with the enemy all around them) Eldon has to end his life by slipping a knife up underneath his friend’s ribs. Until he tells his son,

Eldon has never shared the story with anyone, carrying it in silence for all most all of his adult life. When he finally reveals it, he also identifies it as the truth that led him to his alcoholism and thereby a key piece in Frank’s story as well, given the impact his father’s drinking has had on his own life. But even this foundational piece of knowledge is connected to the larger structure of settler colonialism and capitalism and the impacts it had on Indigenous communities.

Eldon tells Frank early on of the ways in which he was disconnected from the land and Ojibway traditions and thus how poverty and the need to find a job—at any cost—became the driving element of his life: “your grandparents and them like them just followed the work and tried to make out the best they could. We camped in tents or squatted on scrublands no one wanted or in deserted cabins and sheds and such. Never no proper home.”[x] The fact of settler colonialism extends to the war itself, which promised “no more bustin’ a nut for peanuts no more.”[xi]

In the background of Eldon’s story is thus the larger narrative of structural violence and the desolate futile positions Indigenous people were put in, war between nation states being one of the most complicated. 

Still, settler colonialism only plays a backdrop here, artfully placed by Wagamese so that the reader might intuit the larger structure of violence that Eldon is caught up in. For Eldon, however, theories of settler colonialism have no concrete bearing on his actions or in the death of Jimmy. Finally, having confronted the truth of Jimmy’s death by releasing it into the world after repressing it for so many years, Eldon finds it in himself to ask Frank for forgiveness: “you figure you might be able to forgive me, Frank?”[xii]

And while Frank listens carefully to his Father’s story, and even empathizes with his pain (“musta being hard… carrying Jimmy all this time”), he does not forgive.[xiii] He tells Eldon directly, “I ain’t the one that has to.”[xiv] Here Eldon’s request for forgiveness is identified by Frank as an appeal for medicine. In finally testifying to Jimmy’s death, Eldon looks towards Frank, his witness, for absolution.

Yet, despite Eldon’s obvious suffering, Frank refuses, even when his father clarifies that he is not asking his son for forgiveness for everything, for all the pain he caused him, but for this singular act: “I mean about Jimmy,” Eldon follows, attempting to reduce his accountability into a single act. “I mean about him too,” Frank rejoins.[xv] Here, casting his feelings for his father aside, Frank identifies his inability to forgive a perpetrator for suffering caused to another being, or to forgive a history that he played no active role in. While his father calls for forgiveness as medicine, as a means to ease his pain as he moves towards death, Frank will not give what he sees as someone else’s to offer.

To take this reading even further, we could also suggest that Frank’s unforgiveness here, while perhaps not resentment, is a refusal to embody a system of relationality that flattens or reduces the debt of truth that his father owes him. He will not forgive at this point because, while this story helps to clarify his father’s illness, Eldon still owes him the story of his mother.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

A close reading of this initial forgiveness passage in Medicine Walk,  therefore makes more lucid the call for forgiveness and harmony that Wagamese offers in his essay for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation: if it is medicine that perpetrators seek out of survivours—if it is harmony that settlers seek out of reconciliation—that medicine can only come at the behest of hard, often decimating truths, and even then, after those truths have been shared, there is no guarantee that surviours can or will provide the healing that perpetrators desire. It may not be theirs to give. The truth may not be equal to the debt owed. And, inversely, while Indigenous peoples may indeed have an enormous capacity for forgiveness, as Wagamese suggests, there is no debt owed by survivours in the exchange for perpetrator truths.

While the above is a significant scene of (non)forgiveness in Medicine Walk, it is equaled by Frank’s second decision to not forgive, which comes at the novel’s conclusion. The final story that Eldon shares with his son is about the death of Frank’s mother, who passed away during child birth. This is the truth that Frank has been waiting for. The story Eldon finally reveals proves that Eldon was out drinking on the day of Frank’s birth. Because he was out drinking he was too late, and too drunk, to get her to the hospital where, if she had arrived earlier, her life might have been saved. Soon after he shares this final, devastating truth, Eldon passes away and Frank buries him at the site that he wanted as a final resting place.

Frank then returns home to the old man, where he attempts to pick his life back up in the wake his father’s death and this new knowledge about his mother. Eldon never asks Frank for forgiveness a second time, after Frank’s initial refusal, but the old man, is able to inquire if Frank was ever able to forgive:

[Frank] regarded everything solemnly. “I don’t know as he [Eldon] ever got what he wanted in the end,” [he] said.

“Whattaya think that was?” the old man asked. They stopped and they both put a foot on the bottom rail of the fence and gazed out across the acres.

The kid shook his head. “Don’t know. It’s all jumbled up in there. Maybe I was s’posed to forgive him.”

“Do ya?” the old man asked.

“Don’t know that either. Kinda like a thousand-pound word to me right now.”[xvi]

Configured quite differently from the initial request for forgiveness, Frank’s encounter with the concept here, at the conclusion of Medicine Walk, leaves much more space for reflection and possibility, but it cannot easily be read as an act of forgiving. Forgiveness is, Frank concludes, “a thousand-pound word,” one weighted down with so much history, with so many acts of betrayal, and with so much pain and suffering, that it feels impossible to bestow. Yet, unlike in Eldon’s direct request for forgiveness to his son, when questioned about forgiveness, by a third party, Frank seems to find some solace, and suffering, in ambivalence.

If forgiveness exists in Medicine Walk, then, and it is not clear that it does, it exists only as possibility, as an impossibly heavy concept that must be carried by the individual left in its charge and decided in their own time. Further, the question of forgiveness, if possible, cannot be caught up in the system of debt tacitly enunciated in Eldon’s request for it. It is important to note that Frank considers the possibility of forgiveness, here at the end of the novel, in the absence of the one who requested it.

While he certainly knows much more of his father and his circumstances now, it is Eldon’s absence that allows for this possibility, which is to say that forgiveness, in the absence of its subject becomes something that is for the survivor alone. Indeed, for Frank, it is no longer a question of medicine for Eldon, but for himself, should he choose to take it up, which Wagamese never confirms nor denies. 

Wagamese’s decision to not foreclose on forgiveness in Medicine Walk, to leave it open like a wound, speaks worlds to how he is grappling with the concept in his essays on reconciliation, which I quote from above. While forgiveness is, for Wagamese, no doubt a potential path towards healing and empowerment, it is never an imperative for surviours or their families. Indeed, to insist on forgiveness, to request it from those who have been harmed, would be to undermine truth and the primacy Wagamese gives to that concept throughout his work.

If forgiveness is something that Wagamese thinks that survivours should take up, he also recognizes it as a deeply personal journey that individuals address, and quite possibly refute, on their own. As I will go on to illustrate below, there is much to be taken here when place in relation to the TRC genealogy and the Abrahamic insistence on forgiveness that pervades it.

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

[i] Everett L. Worthington. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. New York, Routledge, 2006. 61-69; David Novitz. “Forgiveness and Self-Respect.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58.2 (1998). 299.

[ii] Medicine Walk, 243.

[iii] Richard Wagamese, “Returning to Harmony,” 146.

[iv] Richard Wagamese, “Truth and Reconciliation,” 188.

[v] “Returning to Harmony,” 144.

[vi] Coulthard, 111.

[vii] Richard Wagamese, Medicine Walk, 60.

[viii] Wagamese, 16.

[ix] Wagamese, 49.

[x] Wagamese, 48.

[xi] Wagamese, 152.

[xii] Wagamese, 169.

[xiii] Wagamese , 167.

[xiv] Wagamese, 169.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Medicine Walk, 243.

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