Last week, I participated in an event sponsored by the Institute of Public Knowledge at NYU and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). It was an honour to share the presentation stage with Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Virginie Ladisch, Head of the Children and Transitional Justice Program at the ICTJ. The presentation included a screening of a short, documentary film (introduced by Tamara Cremo) made by several high school students who attended the Halifax national gathering last year. Commissioner Wilson spoke eloquently about the work done thus far by the commission and Virginie Ladisch shared her knowledge about both the opportunities and challenges in engaging youth in processes of transitional justice.

I think a video of the talk may be available shortly so for now, I’d like to focus on a conversation that happened after the talk. The panelists, organizers and budding filmmakers/students went out to dinner after the presentation. The conversation touched on everything from the challenges of motherhood and work/life balance, transitional justice in other international settings, and the importance of creating more awareness about the IRS legacy. We also spoke briefly about Antjie Krog’s work. A journalist and author who covered the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Krog wrote about the work of the commission throughout its mandate and eventually wrote the award-winning book, Country of My Skull. In discussing the lack of national media coverage about the IRS TRC in Canada, Marie Wilson asked, “Where is our Antjie Krog?” Her question made me pause. It’s true. Why hasn’t there been more national coverage about the reconciliation process? Why haven’t journalists and/or media outlets offered sustained media coverage of the IRS TRC? Where is the journalist who has taken up the reconciliation process to portray all its political and personal complexities?

A few years ago, when the commission was still in its early days, I gave a talk at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference at Harvard University. During the Q and A, a member of the audience, a scholar writing about the TRC in Sierra Leone, asked me whether the IRS TRC and the process of reconciliation had galvanized the Canadian public. I answered quickly and with disappointment that it had not. In fact, there are still many Canadians unaware that such a commission even exists. Although there has been some excellent media coverage, it has been sporadic and often appears in local presses. The national newspapers and broadcasters may run a short story on it from time to time, but there hasn’t been any sustained coverage of the reconciliation process. Why is there no weekly or even monthly column that regularly covers the TRC in the Globe and Mail or National Post? Why doesn’t the CBC have a regular radio or TV segment on Canadian reconciliation?

Some people are quick to point out that there are, of course, differences between the South African TRC and the Canadian one. In South Africa, the system of apartheid implicated and effected everyone and it happened in the immediate past. But, I would argue that the same is true in Canada. The Indian Residential Schools and their legacies implicate every Canadian, not just Aboriginal peoples. The last school closed in 1996, suggesting that this history is still fresh and its repercussions are playing out in the present.  More national media coverage is necessary for a greater and deeper awareness of how the reverberations of the IRS system reach out through Canadian society.

The cement foundations of what was once a classroom at St. Mary's Indian Residential School

“It was an evil place. It was a beautiful place.”[i]

I recently took a trip out west to Vancouver, BC. The trip was both personal (to celebrate the wedding of a friend) and research-related (to visit the grounds of former Indian Residential Schools, first in BC and then in Alberta).

The first school I visited was the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, a school that was demolished in 1965. (The students attending there at the time were moved to a new government-run St. Mary’s not far away.) The remnants of the first school, the oldest permanent Indian Residential School in British Columbia, can now be found in the Fraser River Heritage Park.

It was a beautiful late spring day when I visited the park. I had printed out the map of the former school from the Park’s website before my trip and had it with me as I walked. Without the map, it’s unlikely I would have noticed the low concrete foundations embedded in the landscape of the park. The map included buildings that were still standing, that were gone but still marked in some way, and those whose traces had since vanished.

Another cement foundation marking a structure that was once part of St. Mary's.

There were a few other people in the park that day, most were walking their dogs, a few were sitting on benches over-looking the water. I was the only one taking notice of the cement structures, walking from one to another and puzzling over the map.

I found it strange that the cement foundations weren’t marked in some way, so I went to the visitor center to see if I could find more information. There I met Don Brown, a manager at the Heritage Park, who informed me that indeed the foundations were marked. He mentioned that some time ago, they had painted numbers on the structures to coincide with those on the map. But time and weather had worn those away. Then they marked them with small metal plaques. Unfortunately, Don explained, some of those had been stolen, likely to be melted down for the metal. We walked back out to the structures together to see if we could find them and, after checking out a couple, found one marking the old gym.

There was something both beautiful and haunting about that space. It was both serene and unsettling. While at the visitor center, I purchased Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission, a book that captures the contradictions of St. Mary’s. As author Terry Glavin explains, the history of St. Mary’s and the Indian Residential School system is complicated. He writes:

“This book is about a terrible story. It is a story that involves great suffering, betrayal, love, sacrifice, loss, and redemption. This book is also about a wonderful story, a story that involves faith, memory, comfort, forgiveness, sorrow and loyalty. It is also an unfinished story” (11).

The testimonies from the former students in the book discuss both the difficulties and opportunities they experienced at St. Mary’s. Without downplaying the horrible intentions and legacies of the system, the author and the former students involved in the book complicate the narrative of the IRS system as one where only heartache and destruction were the result.

In my next couple of posts I’ll write about the other schools I visited on the trip: Coqualeetza in Chilliwack, BC and Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta.


[i] Glavin, Terry and former students of St. Mary’s. Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission. Mission, BC: Longhouse Publishing, 2002.

I recently wrote a review essay for e-misférica, an online academic journal, for a special issue on Truth Commissions (forthcoming). (UPDATE: The issue is now online. Click here: After Truth.) My review focuses on three books: Julia Emberley’s, Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada; Jo-Ann Episkenew. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing; and Gregory Younging, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné (eds.) Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey.

So I was pleased to see that the recently published special edition of Topia, on The Cultures of Militarization included a special section for discussion on Emberley’s Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal. The section includes essays written by a number of respondents, and Emberley contributes to the discussion as well. One author in particular, Deana Reder, uses an interesting form of engagement. She asks the reader to imagine Emberley’s text as a living room. Because Emberely gives a series of readings of images, books, films and texts, Reder is able conjure a room filled with framed photographs, manuscripts and knick knacks that represent the various components of Emberley’s work.

“Given the premise that Emberley’s text can be imagined as a living room, we can imagine on the feature wall a fireplace, fueled by gas, ignited by the flick of a switch. There are the typical furnishing and knick-knacks that do not seem ill-placed unless more closely inspected. For example, as you enter, some of the first objects noticed are the somewhat charming picture frames perched on the mantle of the fireplace – with images first of a woman with a baby and second of a mother and child. But these are not family photographs of people with names and histories. If you peer closely at the photos you will see that both are of Indigenous people and that they been damaged through scratches inscribed upon them: the first is titled “Indian Woman with Papooose” and the second bears the title “The Indian Madonna,” even though the woman with the relaxed and sunny smile bears little resemblance to the icon in European paintings” (407).

Reder goes on to draw on the work of other authors, such as Carol Williams, Mique’l Askren and Michelle Raheja, to suggest other interpretations of the photographs Emberley reads.

Although Reder recognizes Emberley’s work as innovative and critically generative, she also notes that the “living room” constructed through her work is “haunted by indigenous absence” (413). The exercise of imaging a text as a space filled with objects struck me as an interesting exercise in working through the connections between the objects of the text and the way they are represented. I’m storing this technique in my reserve for future reading.

My last few months have been spent reading and searching through archival documents and images. As I have posted in the past, I am constantly in awe of the materials that can be found there, documents that are both revealing and limited. I’ve also had some wonderful conversations with the archivists I have met (in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa) and it’s been a pleasure to discuss some of the complexities involved in doing this research. Over the last few months, I have also been reading (and re-reading) sections of Ann Stoler’s book, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, which has provided an additional perspective on reading not only the documents contained within the archive, but on the archive itself.

I’ve found that my approach to archival research follows what Stoler identifies as “archiving-as-process rather than archives-as-things” (20). She stresses the need to read both along and against the grain of the archive, that is, to understand the conditions in which these archives were created and cultivated, and the conditions in which they are read now. Archives are not simply produced; they are productive. Because archives are charged sites of both knowledge and anxiety, they must be read as sites of contestation and resignification.[1]

These reflections have also led me to recognize that  truth commissions themselves are often about the production of an archive. For example, Verne Harris, Deputy-Director of the National Archive of South Africa during the South African TRC saw the reconciliation process as  “profoundly, an archival intervention.”[2] As the South African TRC gathered testimonies, “it was engaging archive, rescuing archive, creating archive, refiguring archive.”[3] I am curious to see how the archive (as both process and thing) plays a role as the Canadian TRC moves forward.


[1] See the collected essays in Lucy R Lippard’s Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans for one example where indigenous people have done re-readings and resignfied archival images.)

[2] Krog, Antjie. There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. University of Kwazulu Natal Press, 2009, p. 65

[3] ibid, p. 65.

Recently, I’ve been reading about the role that indigenous literature can play in the process of reconciliation in Canada. I’m currently finishing Jo-Ann Episkenew’s Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing where she explores the work of Aboriginal authors including Basil Johnston, Maria Campbell and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier. But this post will focus on a short story from the collection, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past (published in 2005).

Although the book is filled with excellent writing, the narrative that I found most striking was Thomas King’s piece entitled “Coyote and the Enemy Aliens.” Here, King tells a tale of a coyote who becomes involved in rounding up “enemy aliens.” The story is set during the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  As the definition of enemy alien changes in the story, King illustrates the fickle nature of dividing people into categories of “us” and “them.”

I have been curious for some time about how the process of redress for historical injustices in Canada has taken shape. In particular, the demand for an apology and reparation for Japanese Canadians interned during the second world war is one that I have followed closely. And I have often wondered how to relate these two experiences (of Japanese Canadians and Aboriginal peoples) to each other without erasing the important differences. Thomas King’s work in his short story is impressive in this regard. He uses the familiar character of the trickster coyote to tie the two historical narratives together. In his foreword to the story, he explains his intentions:

“I know the story of the Japanese internment in Canada. I know it as most Canadians know it.

In pieces.

From a distance.

But whenever I hear the story, I think about Indians, for the treatment the Canadian government afforded Japanese people during the Second World War is strikingly similar to the treatment that the Canadian government has always afforded Native people, and whenever I hear either of these stories, a strange thing happens.

I think of the other.

I’m not suggesting that Native people have suffered the way the Japanese suffered or that the Japanese suffered the way Native people have. I’m simply suggesting that hatred and greed produce much the same sort of results, no matter who we practice on” (158).

King’s story captured my imagination. Not only because it is a well-told tale, but because it opens up a way of creating a particular type of Canadian narrative, one that incorporates many voices while maintaining ties to an indigenous mode of story-telling. It also works to close a gap between seemingly disparate histories, drawing attention to similarities rather than differences. I recommend the book in general, and this story in particular.

While I was preparing for my specialization exams last summer, I read a ton of books. For the two exams, I had about 100 books to read in a very short period of time. I got good at skimming the material and pulling out relevant quotes, but because of the pressure to read quickly, I lost out on some of the nuances and beauty of the texts. Luckily, I recently had the chance to re-read one of these books and found that without the looming exam, I was able to appreciate the text much more.

In Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, journalist Antjie Krog tells the story of the South African truth commission. It is a highly personal reflection on the process of national reconciliation after the fall of apartheid. When I first read it, I was looking for two sorts of information: 1) What were the basic facts of the commission? Who were the commissioners? Who testified? What was the public response? And 2) What were some of the theoretical issues with which the commission wrestled? How did it conceptualize truth? How did the concept of reconciliation change during the process? What did it mean to different sets of people within the country?

But on my second reading, I was able to focus far more on Krog’s personal experience of the commission and her struggle as a white Afrikaner dealing with the conflicting emotions of guilt, shame, pride, love and hope. It is a beautifully written, complex story that blends personal narrative with historical context and social commentary.

As I continue to follow the TRC in Canada, I wonder: How does one tell the story of a truth commission?With all its complexities and contestations, how does one weave together some sort of narrative that can speak to its inherent contradictions? Antjie Krog shows us that a layered text produced through a mixture of prose, poetry and journalism may be the answer.

forgetIn preparation for my specialization exams, which are in less than a month (!), I have been reading at a ridiculous rate. Since the semester ended in May, I drew up a schedule for myself in order to make sure I made it through the list, while at the same time taking enough notes to make sure I didn’t simply forget everything – in one eye and out the other.  The list is about 90 books long; granted I had already completed or started a good number of them. Until recently, I have managed to stay relatively on top of the list, but hit a wall last week – reader’s block. I allowed myself to take a few days off, thinking maybe my brain just needed a rest, maybe it was full. But when I tried to get back to it, I would be able to read for a bit, but not with the same attention or speed. So, as a strategy to get back to the reading, I told myself that any kind of reading counted, and it didn’t have to be a lot. I started with the Acknowledgment sections, a section I had generally skipped or skimmed over. And the strategy worked. I would read the Acknowledgments and somehow it would get me motivated to read the book. Here’s an example that I loved from a book called Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed :

After thanking several people and institutions who aided in the development of the book, James C. Scott ends the “Acknowledgments” section with this paragraph:

“I’d like to kick the habit of writing books, at least for  a while. If there were a detox unit or an analog to the nicotine patch for serial offenders, I think I would sign up for treatment. My habit has already cost me more precious time than I care to admit. The problem with book writing and other addictions is that the resolve to quit is greatest during withdrawal, but as the painful symptoms recede, the craving is apt to return. Louise and our children, Mia, Aaron, and Noah, would, I know, be only too happy to have me committed until I was “clean.” I’m trying. God knows I’m trying” (xiv).

I mean, doesn’t that make you want to read the book? It worked for me.

(The image above is by artist, Filippo Minelli. I stumbled upon his work perusing a friend’s blog (www.thoughtpatterns.ca) – another fun pastime when suffering from reader’s block.)