Dialogic potential in the shadow of Canada's Indian Residential School System.

Author:Belanger, Patrick

While visiting London in 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper avowed that the British Empire's approach to Canada's Aboriginal population, "while far from perfect," was one of "the fairest and most generous of the period" (para. 41). Canada's colonial beginnings were less bloody than those of its southern neighbor; between 1866 and 1895 the U.S. Army fought 943 military engagements with Native Americans while Canadian troops fought seven (Thompson & Richard, 2007, p. 48). But the country's history nonetheless entails five centuries of aggressive colonization and subjugation of Indigenous peoples by European settlers. Member of Parliament Gary Merasty justly censured Harper's account, asserting "the past is managed by those in power today to suit present day needs" (House of Commons, 2007, p. 7). Public memory derives from rhetorical struggle, and narratives favored by dominant institutions have greater chance of wide circulation and uncritical reception (Trouillot, 1996). Forensic acknowledgment of the dark side of so-called progress is thus a crucial corrective to a relentless focus on the future, particularly when presiding historical narratives are riddled with politically salient omissions.

This essay offers a dovetailed argument. First, the Canadian federal government's 2008 apology for the Indian Residential School System (IRSS) was a crucial (albeit partial) step towards fostering conditions amenable to dialogic (but still strategic) negotiations between colonizer and colonized regarding an interdependent future. Against the view that such apologies always serve the corrupting interests of power, I suggest that the event generated gainful dialogue irrespective of its degree of sincerity. Second, such negotiations may be productively conceptualized through the theory of coalescent argumentation: pragmatic rhetorical interaction oriented towards areas of commonality. In sum, I argue that the Canadian apology exemplifies the possibilities of coalescent argumentation to advance productive dialogue in conditions animated by ongoing injustices and power asymmetries.

Without doubt, multiple and contradictory political objectives shuffle throughout the 2008 apology's margins (James, 2008). This does not mean, however, that the act was superficial.

I offer this argument with acute reservations about the Prime Minister's sincerity. Just one year after the event, Harper contradicted the apology's crux and repeated a spurious national myth at the Pittsburgh G20 where he asserted that Canada has "no history of colonialism" (as cited in Wherry, 2009, para. 6). The act of reaching out to Aboriginals was a prudent political strategy in that it allowed Harper to potentially attract moderate supporters on the right wing fringe of more liberal political parties. Further, the IRSS was but one component of the federal government's policy towards Indigenous Canadians. The apology did not, for instance, address a long history of violated treaties and appropriation of Native lands. Yet, to the extent that apologies can create an official (and more accurate) historical record, and thereby bolster petitions for substantive socio-economic reconfigurations, I believe it may be possible (in certain contexts) for apologies to have positive consequences even when they are offered with compromised sincerity. As it is impossible to access a rhetor's inner motivations, this question is at one register incidental. More crucial, perhaps, are historical accuracy and evaluations of the act. To be clear, I read the apology as but one step among a broader set of processes. As argued by Mohawk scholar Marlene Brant Castellano (2008), "reconciliation has to take place at a thousand points of encounter, and it has to be reaffirmed when clashes of personalities, interests and cultures trigger old animosities (p. 405; see also Lederach, 1997, p. 27). I ask how fractured societies might get to this point of dialogic encounter; my central claim is that the federal apology cultivated gainful sites for such exchange.

History is always a resource, and a crucial foundation of Indigenous claims to political sovereignty and material redress (Nobles, 2008, p. 153). Indeed, focus on the past is a recurrent feature of social justice theorizing. John Peters (1999) writes, "The present can configure the past so as to open up new points of rendezvous" (p. 10). In similar fashion, Bashir Bashir (2008) argues, "in contexts of historical injustices, deliberation remains a valuable basis for forward-looking political decision-making, but needs to be supplemented with primarily backward-looking and specifically tailored processes of reconciliation" (p. 67). In this model, reconciliation aims to clear the grounds (i.e., foster trust and goodwill) in anticipation of political discussion. The aim is to achieve a sufficient degree of confidence across lines of difference and historical animosity/in Justice to commence the process of deliberation (in the broadest sense of the term) and collective re-imagination of the social order. Yet dialogue itself may foster inchoate trust; the very act of dialogic engagement may constitute demonstrable progress towards the goal of reconciliation.

There are several ways to challenge the social order. If the status quo is deemed inescapably corrupt, a disenfranchised group may engage in revolution. Aboriginal communities in Canada have not often enacted this option. Despite facing massive challenges of theft, poverty, and discrimination, First Nations have rarely resorted to violence (Coates, 2010); the Metis Riel Rebellions of 1869 and 1885, the major exceptions in Canadian history, were small by international standards ("Riel," 1996, 2009). An alternative is to engage in strategic dialogue. Reconciliation in the Canadian context requires a tandem focus on both Indigenous healing (including substantive restitution), and non-Aboriginal education (with a correlated willingness to sacrifice). At each dimension, material concerns are pivotal. Kanien'kehaka scholar Taiaiake Alfred (2005) asserts this point with force:

The logic of reconciliation as justice is clear: without massive restitution, including land, financial transfers, and other forms of assistance to compensate for past harms and continuing injustices committed against our peoples, reconciliation would permanently enshrine colonial injustices and is itself a further injustice. (p. 152)

I proceed with clear understanding that intellectual awareness of historical fact may be an insufficient trigger to motivate substantial reconfigurations of socio-economic power relations. Nonetheless, communicative practice can contribute to the navigation of complex and longstanding social injustices. I define reconciliation as a series of acts that strive towards fostering a willingness to anticipate an interdependent future. Dialogic engagement, at multiple sites and scales, is a core feature of this long-term process. Nurturing contexts propitious to dialogic exchange, however, requires ensuring that participants speak from positions of relative balance and both self and mutual respect. The adage is not true; time will not heal all old wounds. Both forensic and deliberative practices are vital to the process, grounded upon epideictic explorations of historical shadows and interwoven ambitions.

In the following I briefly outline Canada's colonial past and recent federal initiatives to address that history's ongoing legacy. I then lay out theoretical frameworks on dialogue, social justice, and state apologies. Last, building on the work of Michael Gilbert (1997), I argue that the theory of coalescent argumentation constitutes a productive model for initiating gainful inter-community exchange between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal Canadian citizens. Throughout, I offer examples of textual interaction between powerful Canadian voices and Indigenous peoples. In so doing, I hope to create a sense of the dynamic and ongoing dialogic intersections wherein heterogeneous individuals articulate distinct, yet potentially congruous, aspirations.


Canada shares a British colonial history with (among others) India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Like Canada, the latter four countries are setter societies, the result of Britain's overseas expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the exception of South Africa, European minorities gained economic and political control as immigrant population growth, combined with population decline among Indigenous peoples, eventually converted a non-Indigenous minority into a majority (Miller, 2008, p. 18). New Zealand's history is of note in that relations between the colonists and Indigenous Maori has followed a distinct trajectory, one which has led to the prominence of Maori in public office and civic life, and to a strong national identification with Maori culture (e.g., the national rugby team's performance of a Haka war dance before international competitions). South Africa's history is distinct, with Dutch as well as British settlers playing a significant role in political orchestrations. Further, in the South African context the group seeking reconciliation and redress was the large majority. Following the apartheid experience, the country shunned the idea of differentiated citizenship and opted for a majoritarian political model, one less appropriate to the Canadian, U.S., Australian, or New Zealand contexts where the victims seeking reconciliation are minorities. The terms of reconciliation in settler societies may thus extend beyond constitutional equality to incorporate questions of substantive restitution: land reclamation, political autonomy, and reparations. In the following, I differentiate between the colonial experiences of, for example, India and Canada. The former context is more applicable to the idea of post-coloniality, in that the British colonial period ended...

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