Truth, Reconciliation, and Anti-Colonialism

The following comment  is forthcoming in Re-Storying Indian Residential Schools in Times of Reconciliation in Canada, (Eds) Capitaine, B.; Vanthuyne, K., Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press.

“… colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963:210).

Fanon was writing about the critical relevance of a resurgent national culture in the context of revolutionary struggles for political independence from colonialism in Africa. Despite having been written more than 60 years ago these words speak with prescience and immediacy here today, in Canada. Indigenous peoples have been engaged in a permanent struggle for autonomy practically since the first settlers arrived on our shores. The struggle has waxed and waned. Over the course of the twentieth century the colonists appeared to take the upper hand. However, a renewed and resurgent Indigenism is reverberating throughout Canada. From the decentered politics of Idle No More to legal victories and government apologies history is being re-storied as Indigenous peoples compel settlers to take note.

Our history can no longer be ignored. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) findings were stark: Canada committed cultural genocide through the systemic support of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) over the course of more than one century. These schools took children from their homes, maltreated them, abused them, and did all of that under a cultural framework of white supremacy and a political framework of colonialism. As Fanon notes in regard to Africa, colonialism is an active process by which a people’s sense of self, of one’s sense of dignity, one’s very sense of self-worth is deliberately and directly diminished and attacked: “The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality” (1963:211). There is no other way to comprehend the objectives, processes, and outcomes of Canada’s IRS system.

The findings from the TRC provide the empirical evidence of the depravity of Canada’s colonialism: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide” (TRC 2015:1). Central to the displacement of Indigenous peoples from our lands was the programme of silencing us; and the attempt to take away our memory and knowledge of our land, of our history, and of our possibility to enact jurisdiction over these same things. The residential schools played their part in trying to reconstruct memories, histories, and stories that prioritized the assumed racial superiority of the colonizing elite. Fortunately the policy was not as successful as its architects may have hoped.

This volume resonates with Fanon’s call to pay attention to the role of culture, history, and Indigenous intellectuals. The editors deploy the idea of “re-storying,” a process that questions the imposition of colonial narratives. This notion places the emphasis upon the active work of confronting colonial narratives. While there are problems inherent to re-storying (if the practice remains locked in the arcane world of letters), the contributors to this volume offer up the possibilities of a future beyond re-storying. There is a call to act embedded at the heart of this volume. Here too we find an echo of Fanon’s description of the Indigenous intellectual’s path toward joining in the liberation struggle.

Fanon, in discussing the role of intellectuals in the struggle for political liberation outlines three phases through which the native intellectual must pass. I would suggest that the non-Indigenous fellow traveler intellectuals might well find themselves in a similar trajectory. Fanon’s phases are: (1) “the period of unqualified assimilation. . . . [Here] the native intellectual gives proof that he is assimilated to the culture of the occupying power” (1963:222); (2) the period during which the intellectual “decides to recognize what he is. … But since the native is not a part of his people, since he only has exterior relations with his people, he is content to recall their life only. Past happenings of the bygone days of childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of borrowed estheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies” (1963:222), and; (3) Finally, in “the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people” (1963: 222-23). Fanon cautions the Indigenous intellectual that “it is not enough to try and get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question (1963:227).

This volume is located somewhere between Fanon’s phase two and phase three. There are aspects of the chapters that reveal a self-awareness of one’s place in the colonial moment (for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors). Some of the chapters are clearly placed in the fighting phase linking experience, history, and an articulation of a possibility to finally reconcile the colonial state to the Indigenous Nations (rather than the reverse). This constitutes a call to action that echoes Fanon but is rooted in our current Canadian context.

This call to action has a long history within anthropology as well. Kathleen Gough, then a professor at Simon Fraser University, exhorted her colleagues in the late 1960s to join with the liberation struggles of her day as allies in struggle (1968). For non-Indigenous intellectuals Gough’s call and Fanon’s analysis remain relevant and pressing. It is important to understand the intellectual currents of the contemporary struggle, to see the importance of re-storying and rejecting the colonial narrative. The papers in this volume all achieve this end. But that in and of itself is not enough. We must also take action.

“The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis of hope” (Fanon 1963:232). This volume draws from the past and goes beyond the disempowering stories of victimhood. In the artful, poignant, and perceptive analysis presented there is a modicum of hope. To ensure we do not squander the possibility we must all transform the ivory tower and join with the Indigenous struggle for liberation and autonomy.


References Cited

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth: The Handbook for the Black Revolution that is Changing the Shape of the World. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Gough, Katleen. 1968. “Anthropology and Imperialism.” Monthly Review. 19(11, April):12-27.