Recently, I found myself wondering about the possibility of a healing history when so often, it is the burden of personal and institutional histories that seem to be at the root of tremendous grief and pain. Rather than alleviating present circumstances, the weight of personal experiences and histories can actually overwhelm.
I am not the first person to wonder about the ability of history as a discipline to alleviate or improve present circumstances. A few years ago now Timothy J. Stanley made a marvelous call for an anti-racist approach to history that would fundamentally alter social relations and norms that we often accept and take for granted when in fact, they can be extremely damaging to a marginalized individual’s self of sense and worth.
Just as many historians believe that exposing past injustices and the manner in which they continue to be perpetuated is potentially transformative, the many campaigns for redress and the work of truth and reconciliation commissions around the world are founded in the belief of the tremendous cathartic impact of being able to vocalize hurt and wrongdoing. But after redress, and after the truth has been shared, then what? Do historians have a responsibility to think further about the impact of such revelations on a community and actively engage with the heavy weight that exposing buried wounds and hurts may result in? I think we do.
In search of answers, I picked up a copy of Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan (UBC Press, 2010). Paulette Regan is the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and has born witness to the accounts of hundreds of residential school survivors and who makes an absolutely powerful and compelling argument about the possibility of engaging with history in a meaningful and cathartic manner. The key, Regan explains, is that it is not only victims who must come to terms with past harms but everyone, including non-Indigenous Canadians, must engage in the process of healing and reconciliation in an active and committed manner. Regan calls for a decolonizing of the self, an active self-awareness, a cognizant turn within and a probing and fundamentally destabilizing interrogation of assumed truths.
Regan offers a truly remarkable opportunity to fundamentally alter relations between “settler Canadians” (Regan’s terminology) and Indigenous peoples and also how we think about ourselves as members of a national community. What is so important about Regan’s arguments is that for once, Indigenous people alone are not being asked to bear the burden of assessing their positions in Canadian society and the impact of contemporary and historical legacies of injustice. Rather, Regan calls on all Canadians to participate in a decolonization process by looking hard at themselves and their circumstances and considering the manner in which the colonial legacy manifests and perpetuates itself on a daily basis. Regan writes, “as Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. Regan argues that the federal government’s 2008 apology to victims of residential schools was not an end, but rather “an opening for all Canadians to fundamentally rethink our past and its implications for our present and future relations.”
Regan’s work offers the possibility of a transformation born of reflection and processing by all parties rather than a situation in which Indigenous peoples are held responsible for coming to terms with what has happened to them. Regan insists that Canadians cannot simply be a passive audience, left to feel guilt-ridden and hopeless at the trauma created by the residential school experience or worst, removed and unaffected. Rather, Regan insists on a transformation based on the shared possibility of critical hope “to plant the seeds of a more authentic, ethical, and just reconciliation.” Critical hope is born of injustice and rooted in struggles for freedom but it has the potential to help us remember “though we cannot change the past, neither are we held prisoner by it.”
According to Regan, who notes the experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in particular, transformative justice requires that all parties transform. Testifying to wrongdoing and harm is undoubtedly cathartic but it is potentially destructive if wider societal attitudes do not change as a result. Here, all Canadians have a responsibility to live their daily lives in a manner that creates space for different historical legacies from grand national narratives of Canada the Good and Canada the Peacemaker. In Regan’s own words, if settler Canadians can bear “ethical witness” to the testimonies of residential school survivors, “the unsettling questions we then ask ourselves are ripe with potentially transformative possibilities.” Bearing ethical witness is an enormous challenge for it requires an extraordinary capacity to listen without judging and to see without labeling. We must learn to see beyond “Indigenous victim” to see the whole life story and acknowledge authentic differences in personal and community histories, traditions, values and spiritual beliefs.
The story of residential schools in Canada has a history. And it is one that we all share in. There are many ways of communicating that history: in-depth media coverage, such as that pursued by the Globe and Mail in the spring of 2010 is one. The work at activehistory.ca is another. But beyond communicating history, what we really need is the courage and the candor to acknowledge what we don’t want to hear or see of ourselves in that history.
*My thanks to Chelsea Horton, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia for introducing me to Paulette Regan’s work.
**This article was revised in August 2013 in response to comments made by the family members of an individual mentioned in the original version.