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Decolonization as Reconciliation: The Colonial Dilemma of Canada’s Residential School Apology and Restitution

BY PATRICIA ELGERSMA** | 06.09.2011


  • Introduction

In recent decades the Canadian public have heard a number of apologies from various governments and institutions. The apology to Japanese Canadians (1988) and Italian Canadians (1990) for treatment during World War Two, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) Statement of Reconciliation (1998) to former residential school occupants, and the apology for the ‘Chinese Head Tax’ (2006), are just a few examples.

800px-Harper_Canada_Day_09In 2008, the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, added to the trend with his public acknowledgement and apology concerning the Indian Residential School System (IRS), a government-led policy between 1874 and 1996, that in conjunction with four major church groups, removed indigenous Canadians involuntarily from their homes and sent them to boarding schools where they were forced to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. The hope was that residential schools would ‘get rid of the Indian problem’ by ‘killing the Indian in the child’ (Ryan, as quoted in Chrisjohn, Young, & Maraun 2006:61). Harper’s apology, which also initiated the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), was praised for being a watershed in Canadian relationships with indigenous people. Not only had he helped to ‘mark an end of the dark period in our collective history as a nation’ (Simon, as quoted in Martin 2009:50), but the apology was also a key factor in the movement ‘towards healing, reconciliation and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian Residential Schools’ (Harper, as quoted in Martin 2009:49). It finally seemed that non-indigenous Canadians were addressing the legacies and owning up to the injustices of the residential schools.

This article looks more closely at the apology and at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and questions its ability to bring about reconciliation. It argues that the structure and nature of the these current reconciliation projects have the potential to be ineffective because they stem from the same structure and context that led to the formation of residential schools in the first place. This context is colonial in nature and simultaneously reinforces the myth of Canada as a tolerant, benevolent state while placing the burden of reconciliation solely on indigenous populations.

As such, I argue that for proper transformation and restitution to occur Canadians must engage in a ‘decolonizing’ process – a process that requires a more critical, self-reflective, anti-oppressive, and anti-racist approach to relationships with indigenous populations. This process removes unequal power relationships and accepts responsibility for the way in which the philosophy behind residential schools continues to affect relationships with indigenous people today. At the same time non-indigenous Canadians must work to ‘re-story’ and ‘re-imagine’ history and their relationships with indigenous Canadians, to find new ways of communicating and working together that transcend the current power relations and trends.

The first section of this article addresses terms and definitions, then provides a brief overview of the residential schools and explains their relevance as a colonial project. It then deconstructs how this colonial mindset is present in the current apology and TRC and the potential problems this creates. Following this the argument for ‘decolonization’ will be made and a new paradigm will be laid out to explore how non-indigenous Canadians might work to break the patterns of violence that continue to define their relationship with indigenous people. Finally, suggestions will be made for what needs to be done and how this ‘decolonized’ approach can be brought into reconciliation efforts regarding residential schools.

  • Definitions and Terms

This article does not come from an indigenous perspective and has been conceived in English. This is not to say that it does not have legitimacy, but that it is limited in both its language and its discourse. Recognizing the limits of such a method, ‘indigenous’ is used in this paper to describe all First Nations, Métis, and Inuit persons in Canada. Although no legal definition exists, the term First Nations refers to Amerindian peoples in Canada, both those who have been registered with the federal government or with a band which signed a Treaty with the Crown (Status Indians) and those who have not (Non-Status Indians).

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 *Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 2

** Patricia Elgersma has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Calgary in Canada, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Conflict Resolution from Coventry University. Her current area of interest revolves around the possibilities of peacebuilding through a ‘re-storying’ of the past with multi-media and the arts. In August 2011, Patricia will commence a twelvemonth position with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) working at an elementary peace school for visually impaired children in Jordan.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

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