Unsettling Reconciliation: towards decolonising land and rights relations in Canada

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This post was originally published on The White Horse Press blog and is based on an article just published in Environmental Values (27.5 October 2018).


How do we talk about the painful, violent distance between ourselves and the earth? How do we apologise, reconcile with the land that makes us? How do we name the violent systems and histories that constrict spaces like weights on our windpipes? How do we speak the names that work to un-person us, un-human us, un-land us?

These are some of the questions that trouble me and push me in my scholarship. The connection of land and struggle is an intimate one. I assumed, then, that the violence against humans and the violence against non-human nature would be connected in important ways in major cases of political reconciliation such as South Africa and Canada. But that was not the case. In fact, dominant euro-descendent theories of harm and repair are limited in their exclusion of considerations of earth, of land, and of environment. I have identified this omission as a problem, but also as an opportunity to engage our different respective environmental heritages, identities, and values in the work of healing, in the work of reconciliation.

‘Unsettling Reconciliation: Decolonial Methods for Transforming Social-Ecological Systems’ grapples with aspects of this work, of healing, importantly grounded in reappearing the landed violence of settler colonialism in the North American context, of locating and naming that continuous erasure of land and land belonging.

The impetus for this article came from my frustrations in reading dominant philosophical analyses of political reconciliation processes with no reference to land, to land dispossession, or even to how parties attempting to reconcile might have distinct and incommensurable relations to land. It came from frustrations at pronouncements that reconciliation had been successful or completed when the conditions and realities of the survivors of the violence calling for reconciliation remain largely unchanged, especially ecologically.

Particularly, ‘Unsettling Reconciliation’ examines the unsuitability of reconciliation processes between settler states and Indigenous peoples that do not address the continuous landed violence of settler colonialism. I argue that reconciliation models and processes that continue to ignore, erase, and obscure the ecological violence at the heart of damaged settler-Indigenous relations still operate as settler colonial models, which are directly antithetical to a truly transformative or meaningful improvement of relationships.

This work did not emerge just from my own individual observations, but rather from listening to and reading Indigenous scholars and activists express their dissatisfaction with the superficiality of Truth and Reconciliation processes. I focus particularly on the North American context and the recent ‘completed’ TRC addressing the Indian Residential School System in what is currently called Canada.

Qu’appele Indian School, Saskatchewan. Note the camp set up by parents to visit their children. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It struck me that the discussion of how to address the violent trauma of the Indian Residential School System was not framed as continuous violence of settler colonialism earthing itself in place. With the ‘completion’ of the TRC, while surely a step in the right direction, I wanted to keep in view how it might symbolise the closing of a chapter and a continuing disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty, a disavowal of the State of Canada as a settler colony occupying Indigenous lands.

So, I proposed an analysis that, instead of disavowing, pays attention to the ways in which land is or is not showing up in attempts to reconcile settler states and Indigenous peoples. The absence of Indigenous landedness and land as Indigenous became not a harmless omission, but rather a way to refashion the status quo by never bringing the foundation of ecological violence to the table of reconciliatory discussions.

I found the incompleteness of these reconciliation models unacceptable. To say that reconciliation has been completed is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to heal, what healing requires as a discursive and continuous process. To move toward the meaning of healing, I suggested what I called ‘deep reconciliation’, which actually requires the dislodging of Western euro-descendent values as normative simply because they are dominant by way of history and power. It requires seeing that the way we relate to our environments and lands is related to the system of violence we are constantly entangled in and refuse to name.

‘The women, they hold the ground’, 2015. With thanks to Elizabeth LaPensée. Artist and researcher Elizabeth LaPensée is of Anishinaabe/Mètis heritage and her powerful images put indigenous culture at the forefront of media

We are not all relating to land and sovereignty in the same way and to assume that we are is to perpetuate a violence reconciliation hopes to overcome and not commit, or commit again. Ecological violence is what happens to the earth, but also what happens to us as beings of earth, as land. It cannot be healed or reconciled while we deny it, while we deny that we have violated land and each other. While we pretend our harms occur in a vacuum and not standing in and on Indigenous lands.

‘Resilience’, 2015, by Elizabeth LaPensée

For further details of Elizabeth LaPensée’s work, see her website. We are very grateful for permission to use her images.

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Esme G. Murdock

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