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Can We Reconcile With Reconciliation?

Words are sometimes slippery, especially in law and politics. This is not always a bad thing, because ambiguous language sometimes resolves conflict, by allowing people to maintain face while they compromise. Henry Adams, the famous American writer, wrote, "No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery, and thought is viscous."

Let's look at the word "reconciliation," key to "truth and reconciliation" projects in various countries dealing with the aftermath of historical violence: notably, South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid, and Chile after the Pinochet dictatorship. The Canadian Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is similar to these in that it follows the collapse of a system of violence; but it differs in aiming to preserve the government behind that violence.

In South Africa and Chile, successor governments established "truth and reconciliation" commissions to investigate wrongs done by previous governments and thereby to distinguish the new governments from their predecessors. In both situations, the path to political and social harmony was a call to justice by new government, under new policies.

In Canada, the "truth and reconciliation" process is not an act of a successor government. It is an effort to settle thousands of lawsuits by Indian residential school survivors against the government and churches who operated the schools. The government of Canada comes to the "truth and reconciliation" process as the perpetrator trying to settle court action by the victims. Indeed, the Canadian Parliament statement of the commission acknowledges that it "is unique among truth commissions in having been negotiated through the court system." The victims participating in the process are seeking an alternative to the difficulties and expense of litigation and to get immediate financial compensation.

The word "reconciliation" appears sixty times in Parliament's statement, yet is nowhere defined. Instead, the document lists the question, "what is the reconciliation that is hoped for," among "other philosophical and practical questions" about which the parties "will have to engage in debates." The document says, "Various commissions have defined reconciliation in their own way, but a common theme is that reconciliation refers to a new relationship between the parties concerned that emerges as a consequence of the commission and the truth it has reported on. "

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The emphasis on "new relationship" is an example of the slipperiness of words, because "reconciliation" is derived from "to reconcile," which the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) defines as "to restore to peace or unity." The Canadian use begs the question whether there ever was "peace or unity" among the parties. If the relationship between Canada and the churches was adversary to Indigenous peoples from the start, then "reconciliation" is a misnomer. While it is possible to "resolve" a dispute among adversaries, this is different from "reconciliation," which implies prior friendship.

We know the Canadian government and churches were both colonial and hostile; that the boarding schools were part of a crusade to compel Indigenous children to become members of Christian civilization. Canadian boarding schools were in fact part of an over-arching claim of Christian Discovery and Dominion tracing to 15th century papal bulls calling upon Christian monarchs to "capture, vanquish, and subdue … pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property."

We should be especially cautious of "reconciliation" in the Canadian context because, as the O.E.D. also shows, the word has special roots in Christian usage: the "sacrament of reconciliation … in which confession is made, penance is given, and absolution is granted by the priest." A cynic might say the Canadian commission is not a reversal of prior abuse, but a subtle extension of it.

Good may come from the willingness of Indigenous peoples to work with—and forgive—those who have abused them; but I write to express extreme caution as we move toward a historical watershed in the United Nations next year, when the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will focus on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that is the foundation of religious-based abuses to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. May it be we can find peace; it will mean we form a basis for friendship for the first time.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and served as staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. From 1970 to 2002, he taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He currently a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.