An image from my last trip to Berlin

An interesting article appears in the New York Times today about a contest of memory over the date, November 9 in Germany. The date carries double-meaning as the date of the “Kristallnacht,” as well as the day the Berlin wall was breached.

From the article:

Germans take the business of remembering very seriously, and so Nov. 9 has always presented a bit of a challenge — how to celebrate the joy of the wall’s coming down while at the same time commemorating the night of terror known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass….

Years ago, Germany decided to sidestep the awkward historical coincidence by emphasizing Oct. 3, 1990, as the day of unification, and playing down Nov. 9, 1989. But that effort seems to have lost steam. “Memory is about self-interest,” said Maxim Biller, a prominent writer and commentator who is Jewish. “The Germans wanted to reconcile with history, to have a better corporate identity for society, in a way, yes.”

Read the full article here.

Hello, France.

November 7, 2010

An obligatory shot of the Eiffel Tower

I arrived in France at the beginning of November to begin my 5 week stay as a Memory and Memorialization Fellow at l’École normale supérieure in Cachan (a suburb of Paris). The Fellowship, organized by CNRS (France), New York University (USA), Memorial de Caen (France), and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum (USA), brings together memory scholars and experts to foster dialogue across disciplines.

During my stay, I’m interested in seeing how discourses of public memory circulate in France, particularly in relation to a history of colonialism and the second world war. I’m also interested in discourses of assimilation in France, as they reveal some of the ways in which France imagines itself as a nation and imagines its citizens. Although my main emphasis remains the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’m curious to see if or how drawing comparisons between the two contexts can lead to some interesting conversations.

In my first week, I’ve managed to dive into my reading list, do a little writing, and  visit two museums of interest: Le musée du quai Branly and Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. I’m going to post about them soon. But in the meantime, here are a few photos from my trip so far:

Me and the leaves

A quiet morning at l'École normale supérieure campus in Cachan.

NA and JB reunited.

The former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School, renamed the Rufus Prince building.

A heart sticker near a drain at the former Indian Residential School in Portage la Prairie.

As I’ve mentioned, I spent some time traveling and researching this summer. One stop I have yet to write about is my short visit to Portage la Prairie. Located just an hour or so outside of Winnipeg, I spent a day there after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national event. While in Portage la Prairie, I visited a former residential school that is now being used as development and tribal offices for the Long Plain First Nation. The school itself is still in good condition, and it had been chosen to house the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada. Originally slated to open in 2008, the Museum unfortunately lost its funding and the project has been put on hold. Some of the archival documents, artwork and photographs are still housed in the school’s basement.

While visiting the school, I was fortunate to have a tour of the grounds. Barb Esau and Robert Peters walked with me through the school. As we walked, they pointed to where the students had showered, where they were sequestered when punished, and where they lined up to eat….

NOTE: I am currently working on writing a longer piece about visiting the school, so I have truncated the version that originally appeared here.

Thank you to Ruth Roulette, Barb Esau, Robert Peters and Angela Roulette for sharing your time, memories and experiences.

The American Studies Association (ASA) Conference was held this year in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 5th – 8th, 2009), and I had the pleasure of presenting on a panel entitled, “The Courts of Public Memory: Trauma, Nation, and Reconciliation.”

The panel was chaired by scholar Lisa Yoneyama, and the papers were:

Robert Eap, University of Southern California (CA)
Rethinking Impunity: A Critique of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Naomi Angel, New York University (NY)
Memory, Nation, and Social Transformation in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Zenia Kish, New York University (NY)
Remembering Ukraine’s Famine-Terror of 1932–1933: Post-Soviet Memory as National Politics

Julie Thi Underhill, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Elusive Justice: Democratic Kampuchea’s Cultural Genocide of the Muslim Cham

Before attending the conference, I was worried that I was suffering from ‘conference-burnout,’ so instead of rushing around and trying to take in too much, I decided to attend only a few panels and focus on learning from my fellow-panelists. It was great to draw connections between questions of social and criminal justice and the politics of memory across diverse geographical and temporal sites, and to continue this conversation after the panel. I was inspired by the work of my fellow panelists, and thrilled to meet Professor Yoneyama.

2009 has been a ridiculous year for conferences. I presented at five this year, and although each provided a unique and valuable experience, I’ve decided that maybe one or two would be far more manageable in the future! For now, it’s time to focus on my dissertation proposal…

For a brief recap of the other conferences:

Conference #1: American Comparative Literature Association, Cambridge.

Conference #2: Canadian Communication Association, Ottawa.

Conference #3: Encuentro (Hemispheric Institute Conference), Bogota.

Conference #4: Eleventh Berlin Roundtables: The Politics of Memory, Berlin.

Above image (from left to right): Julie, Naomi, Robert and Zenia

Berlin! (Part 2)

November 9, 2009

berlin3As part of the Eleventh Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, the Irmgard Coninx Foundation organized a city tour for participants. We traveled through the grey streets of Berlin to the Jewish Museum, the Stasi Prison, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the nearby Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism. Given that the Roundtables focused on “The Politics of Memory,” the sites sparked a lot of discussion between participants. For example, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism was set away from the street, so it could not be seen unless you turned and walked away from the street in order to see it. The large block (pictured above and below) had a small hole cut out with a looped film running. The film showed two men kissing. (Apparently, this film alternates with two women kissing.) But you have to peer through the hole to see it. Again, there has to be effort on the part of the visitor to 1) see the monument at all, and 2) to see the film.

The memorial was striking in several ways. On the one hand, it used a similar form to many memorials. For example, the grey concrete structure was similar to the stelae in the memorial across the street, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (a memorial that I found very moving). On the other hand, certain techniques, particularly the use of film, set it apart from most memorials I’ve visited. I’m not sure what the memorial is communicating through the use of this looped film – Is it a gesture towards inclusion? A reminder of ongoing persecution? A provocation to understand the past and present in a new way? It remains unclear, but it’s stayed with me – perhaps this lack of clarity and the unanswered questions are the point.

Note: Berlin is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. The New York Times has a cool interactive feature focusing on images submitted by readers. Check out The View from the Wall for more.


On Thursday, October 15th, the IRS TRC chair, Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, the two commissioners, Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild, and the Governor General of Canada, Honourable Michaëlle Jean will attend the “Witnessing the Future” Event where the future of the TRC mandate will be addressed.

Survivors of the schools, government officials and church leaders will be in attendance to share their stories. A live webcast of the proceedings will be broadcast at commencing at 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 15th, 2009.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada continues to face obstacles. Delayed by one year, the Commission has now re-formed with three new Commissioners. The most recent debate involves the distinct groups that will be given voice through the Commission. In a recent Globe and Mail piece, Peter Irniq writes that the Inuit experience will not be adequately represented by the Commission. He calls for a separate Inuit TRC that will deal specifically with the Inuit experience in the Indian Residential School system, and writes that “The failure to appoint an Inuk to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a national disgrace.”

In a response piece a few days later, Bob Weber points out that there are Inuit members on the ten person panel that will advise the commission.  The commission was not appointed through the Prime Minister’s office, as suggested by Mr. Irniq, but through an independent selection committee that included representatives from many of the stakeholders involved in the reconciliation process, including Mary Simon, head of the national Inuit group Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami. He also mentions that Mr. Irniq has actively started to raise support for a boycott of the commission.

Although I understand Mr. Irniq’s concerns that the Inuit experience will be marginalized in the national process of reconciliation, I don’t think that a separate Inuit TRC would solve this problem. The IRS TRC already fragments Aboriginal peoples experiences with assimilationist polices in Canada by focusing exclusively on the legacies of the IRS system. Further fragmentation will not promote reconciliation. Mr. Irniq’s concerns are valid, I just wonder if there isn’t a different way to approach this problem.

For example, I posted a few weeks ago on an exhibit at the National Archives in Ottawa, which focuses specifically on the Inuit experiences at the schools.  The exhibit included testimonies from Inuit survivors of the schools. Some were in English, others were in Inuktitut, and the posters on the walls had translations available in French, English and Inuktitut. It’s important to recognize that cultural production of memory (through art, museum spaces, monuments, film etc.), and not just those discourses produced through commissions, play a vital role in raising awareness about this history, and can provide an outlet for survivors who prefer not to give testimonies to a commission linked with the state (even tangentially). It is also important not to get side-tracked by a focus on the three commissioners, especially since the commission will involve a large support staff including translators, administrators and counsellors from diverse communities.

The title for this post is “A Fragmented Reconciliation Process?” but perhaps this is misleading. All processes of reconciliation are fragmented, and in part it is through this fragmentation that questions are asked and dialogue is begun. The balance between fragmentation and a unified whole (however illusionary) is at the heart of these national processes of reconciliation.

To read Peter Irniq’s piece in the Globe and Mail, click here.  For an article about these issues on, click here.