Considerations

Decolonization, Reconciliation, and the Extra-Rational Potential of the Arts

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what it means that “reconciliation” and “decolonization” circulate with such rapidity these days, in the art world and in academia in particular. And so, in a recently published essay, I try and make sense of the history of residential schooling in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process and what art has to offer these histories and our future.

I learned so much in this research process, including that the construction of the TRC is a consequence of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. According to Paulette Regan,the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the agreement was articulated to address, in bulk, “over twelve thousand individual abuse claims and several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of approximately seventy thousand former [Indian residential school] students against the federal government and church entities who shared joint responsibility for the schools.” [1] The passage of the agreement was based upon an federally determined maximum allowable opt-out, which has been described by journalist Kerry Coast: “The Settlement Agreement was foisted on the Survivors as an ultimatum: if too many people dropped out, 5,000 or more, no one would be paid [the federally administered Common Experience Payment] at all…the Agreement then closed the door to court action against church or state by anyone who had lost their ‘language, culture and family life’, by asserting that the matter had been lawfully concluded by the government’s posting of public notices of its intention to do so and advertising the details.” [2] Coast goes on to detail that, before the Settlement Agreement, court cases were being “awarded damages approaching the million dollar mark.” The Common Experience payments were administered at a significantly lower rate. According to Service Canada, “eligible applicants may receive $10,000 for the first school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools, plus an additional $3,000 for each subsequent school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools.” [3]

I had not previously realized that the TRC process wielded such precise economic benefits for the state, but this highlights the fact that the horror of residential schooling as one manifestation of the colonial project, and the TRC as a gesture of reconciliation, cannot be interpreted as a fulsome and adequate redress to so many histories anchored in this place called Canada.

Although the commission closed its doors late last year with the publication of its massive final report, this is merely the transfer of obligation to Canadian citizens—settler, Indigenous, immigrant, refugee—to approach our relationality critically.

The distance is vast between rhetoric and action, and the ease of the former cannot displace the difficulty of the latter. The extra-rational potential of art gives us a way to consider the means of working toward a decolonized, Indigenized future other than through state sponsored and articulated processes of reconciliation. The extra-rational potential art is one way of interrogating the possible consequences of reconciliation and a place where needed alternatives can come into being. Our creative cultural practices are necessary for this future because they instantiate ways of thinking and being in relation that resist articulation elsewhere. Here, as David Garneau would say, refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule us.

[1] Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 6-7.

[2] Kerry Coast, “UN report misses the mark on Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Vancouver Media Co-op, accessed 19 April 2015, http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/un-report-misses-mark-indian-residential-schools-s/31058.

[3] “Common Experience Payment,” Service Canada, last modified 05 September 2013, http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/goc/cep/index.shtml.

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