Tag Archives: segregation

“Sorry” Means Nothing Unless It Comes With Real Change: On Truth and Reconciliation in Canada and Beyond

Last semester, I took a course called “the Dark Side of Sorry”, which examined the Sorry Movement in Australia and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Canada. Since it was a literature course we spent part of the semester reading books that dealt with the effects of colonization in those three countries.

The novels we read explored the effects of apartheid in South Africa, the Stolen Generation in Australia, and residential schools in Canada on the lives of specific characters. In contrast, our critical readings examined the way each of those countries dealt with those events after they were nationally, and internationally, condemned. I want to touch on a few of the criticisms that were raised through our critical readings and discuss why those arguments are particularly relevant today.

South Africa

“Suffice it to say that none of these unconventional projects was intended to lead to any gross violation of human rights […] It can, however, be argued that they did create an atmosphere conducive to abuses.”

– from the apology that F.W. de Klerk, the last South African leader of the apartheid era, gave to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.While de Klerk apologized for apartheid before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he later “withdrew from the commission, saying he had no need to apply for amnesty as he hadn’t committed any crime.” In an interview in 2012, Klerk pointed out that he had not apologized for “the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states”. He also stated that, not all aspects of apartheid were “morally repugnant”.

After apartheid was finally overthrown South Africa attempted to bring healing to a divided nation through their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was meant to be an act of restorative justice, rather than retribution.

In many ways the TRC was a success. For example, it unearthed the truth about many missing persons, allowing families to finally discover what happened to their loved ones. However, there were also many criticisms against the South African TRC, some of which I’ve outlined below.

1) The TRC didn’t differentiate between violence committed by “an illegal state” and “the combatants of a just war”.

“… from the moment the Commission chose to define violation of human rights in terms of individual acts, it ceased – politically and historically – to be viable: ‘There is,’ write Kader and Louise Asmal and Ronald Suresh Roberts… ‘simply no proportionality between the two sides of the struggle, a fact that is lost on the commission’s decision to individualize it’s definition of a gross human rights abuse'” (171).

– from”Apathy and Accountability” by Jacqueline Rose

2) Racial wealth equality was never really on the table.

“Let one’s fantasy roam a little – what really would be preposterous or ethically inadmissible in imposing a general levy on South Africa’s white population? … such an offer could originate from the beneficiaries of Apartheid themselves, in a voluntary gesture of atonement – it need not be a project of the state. Is such a genesis – from within the indicted group itself – really beyond conception?”

– from “Reparations, Truth and Reconciliation” by Wole Soyinka

3) The TRC remained so focused on the horrific crimes that were being confessed during the hearings that it overlooked the general state of apathy that allowed apartheid to exist for so long. The crimes presented at the TRC trials stood out as “outrageous” acts, and they drew “the nation’s attention away from the more commonplace violations” (162).

“Spread accountability too wide by flattening out the differences between the state and its opponents, then oddly, symmetrically, it will also start to shrink, as the crimes of apartheid becomes more and more the acts of individuals, [and] less and less the machinery of the unjust, and illegal apartheid state” (168).

– from”Apathy and Accountability” by Jacqueline Rose

Australia

“We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.”

– from the official apology given by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008.

I knew the least about Australia’s history, out of the three countries we studied. From what I understand, race relations in Australia were fairly similar to here in Canada, where indigenous peoples were restricted from public areas, treated like scientific specimens, and removed from their families “for their own benefit”.

In May 1997, the Bringing Them Home investigation shocked the Australian settler community by publicizing these historical injustices. It also prompted the Sorry Movement and Sorry Day, which has been held on May 26th since 1998. Below are a few observations critics have made about settler Australians’ “Sorry” response.

1) The Sorry movement is entirely settler-centred.

“These revelations brought about a form of ‘bad conscience’ in the settler Australians… [and] present[ed] them with a vision of a nation improperly formed. They experience the unsettledness of losing their sense of innocent national selfhood. For settlers so afflicted, the postcolonial apology becomes a lifeline to the restitution of a legitimate sense of belonging” (243)

– from “Apology in Postcolonizing Australia” by Haydie Gooder and Jane M. Jacobs.

2) The Sorry movement backfired politically for indigenous Australians.

“The era of reconciliation has coincided with a post-native title backlash in which many sectors of Australian society, not least the powerful mining lobby, have responded negatively and often hysterically to the overturning of the doctrine terra nullis (land belonging to no one) and the common law recognition of native title… Federal Government policy, attentive to the electoral and economic implications of such a backlash, has responded by cutting funds to key indigenous organizations and eroding the gains secured through the Native Title Act and subsequent native title adjudications.”  (234)

– from “Apology in Postcolonizing Australia” by Haydie Gooder and Jane M. Jacobs.

Canada

“The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history.”

– from the official apology given by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in June 2008.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a Canadian who isn’t familiar with the trauma residential schools inflicted on Indigenous communities across the country, but for those of you who are not Canadian I’ve included a short video below that sums up some of that history.

In 2008, Canada instituted our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed survivors of the residential school experience to speak out publicly. Unfortunately, there were several elements of the TRC that many indigenous spokespersons found problematic.

1) The term “reconciliation” misrepresents our history.

“Re-conciliation refers to the repair of a previously harmonious relationship. The word choice imposes a fiction that equanimity is the states quo between Aboriginal people and Canada.” (35)

– from “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation” by David Garneau

2) The majority of the damage had been done by Christian organizations, yet the reconciliation movement rests upon Christian theology and terminology.

“Whether the choice of this world [reconciliation] … is an accidental inheritance, it is ironic, if not sinister, that survivors of religious residential schools … are asked to participate in a ritual that so closely resembles that which abused them” (35)

– from “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation” by David Garneau

3) The Western understanding of apology allows us to move on, without necessarily doing anything to rectify our mistakes.

“Cree artist, poet and oral historian and theorist, Neal McLeod explains that there is no equivalent in the Cree language for the Western notion of an apology. The closest equivalent to ‘I am sorry’ is nimihta tân, which means ‘I regret something’.  McLeod explains that the word used in reference to the residential school experience is ê-kiskakwêyehk, which means ‘we wear it.’ This is a profound difference. It is visual and visceral rather than abstract. It describes a recognition and acceptance that cannot be washed or wished away.” (36)

 – from “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation” by David Garneau

4) The government continues to protect perpetrators.

“While many truth commissions are granted judicial powers to subpoena witnesses and the ability to ‘name names’ of perpetrators, the Canadian TRC has neither of these powers.”

– from “Truth, Reconciliation and “Success” in the International Context” by Dr. Rosemary Nagy

5) Activists are worried that nothing will actually be done about the commissions recommendations.

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to a close in June of this year, making many of the critiques we explored in this class particularly relevant. The TRC commission concluded that residential schools were an act of “cultural genocide” and put forward 94 recommendations for the Canadian government. Several weeks have passed and Canadians are now asking, is our government going to act on any of them?

In Conclusion

It’s hardly surprising that the one thing in common with the national apologies offered by political leaders in each of these countries is their attempt to distance themselves from the atrocities that took place. The Canadian and Australian prime ministers attempted to do so metaphorically, by referring to the events as a chapter which could be left in the past. In contrast, de Klerk’s non-apology seems to reflect a more blatant refusal to fully accept responsibility.

However, these apologies are certainly better than nothing at all. In fact, many indigenous peoples in South Africa, Australia and Canada have celebrated their country’s national apology as a hard-won victory. But shouldn’t we strive for something more than “better than nothing”? Especially when a a public apology eases settlers’ consciouses and allows us to overlook the systemic problems that led to these injustices in the first place?

“How can we overlook the fact that those admitting to guilt and professing regret continue to occupy, and to speak from, a position of dominance, so that to read abjection or loss of power in their situation would be to misread not merely power relations but the nature of the political apology itself?”

– from “Righting Wrongs and Rewriting History” by Rajeswaru Sunder Rajan

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Can Video Games Make Thoughtful Social Critiques?

Just to be clear, I am not a gamer. The only video game I ever successfully completed was Jill of the Jungle, which we owned on floppy disk when I was a kid.

I’m pretty sure I only liked this game because Jane was a super cool tough girl,

In fact, up until this past year I would have argued that video games don’t really have any redeeming qualities. At worst, they are a hotbed of misogyny and xenophobia, as chronicled by female gamers on websites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly or Slutty. At best, they are like a bottomless pit where the lives of children and adults disappear, never to resurface.

Although I suppose the same could be said about pretty well anything.

This year a good friend convinced me to try a Digital Humanities class at my University. For those of you who haven’t heard of the field before (I hadn’t either), Wikipedia defines it as the “intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities”.  If you want to see some examples of the kind of research being done in the field, you could check out two of my past posts describing DH scholar Lisa Nakamura’s guest lectures at my university.

While this class has challenged the way I see technology in general, it has particularly challenged my very negative perception of video games. In fact, Ian Bogost, one of the DH scholars we studied in the course, argues that games can form powerful arguments and unique social critiques. In his book, Persuasive GamesBogost describes arguments made by a game as “procedural rhetoric“, or, more simply as “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions, rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures”.

Below, I’ve included four examples of persuasive games my DH professor shared with the class. Each of these games make relevant and thoughtful arguments that wouldn’t have been as effective if they didn’t appear in their procedural form.

The Parable of the Polygons

Vi Hart and Nicky Case preface their simple browser game by stating that “This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world.” Hart and Case explain that the triangles and squares are “slightly shapist”. This means that the shapes prefer some level of diversity around them, but will become unhappy if they feel isolated in their community. Players are then asked to drag and drop the shapes until all of the squares and triangles are happy with the community of shapes around them.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 1.28.02 PM

Click on the image to play the game

Once the player begins moving the shapes, it becomes apparent that even a slight bias will lead to large scale segregation. Continue reading

Fame Day: The One-State Solution

This was originally going to be my topic for Monday, but I decided to put this discussion off for a few days and showcase it here. Our “Fame Days”, after all, aren’t just about celebrating achievements but include shining the spotlight on noble issues or events we believe should have more attention, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of any idea more deserving than the “One-State Solution”.

Chances are that you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and that’s fine. Normally I rail against what I’d consider self-imposed ignorance when it comes to politics or foreign affairs, but this is a really, really obscure concept (heck, that’s the entire reason we’re talking about it today).

When we’re talking about either the “one-state” or (more common) “two-state” solutions, we’re referencing the debate over the future of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Pretty much every so-called “road map” to “peace in the Middle East” revolves around settling the question of the borders of Israel and what would eventually become the state of Palestine. Who gets what land, access to which resources, authority over which sites- you get the idea.

Continue reading

Shame Day: Our (In)justice System

Last time I was in prison I remember thinking to myself, “This sure reminds me of high school.” This was mostly because of the way the prison was structured like a school: there were various buildings connected by paths and even nice little areas with a tree or two and a bench to sit on.

The visiting areas were set up a lot like a school cafeteria, but apparently all the tables had microphones in them to monitor conversation. I also had to go through some sort of metal detector to reach the visiting area and had to leave my keys at the front. For the most part it was easy to forget where you were, as long as you couldn’t see the razor-wire fence from where you were sitting.

I was the one visiting, in case you were starting to wonder where that introduction was going. Continue reading

Arizona’s Attack on Mexican-American Studies

It occurs to me that it’s been too long since we actually had an actual “report” here, rather than rabid opinion piece. To that end, we’re going to be examining the state of Arizona’s recent assault on its Mexican-American ethnic studies programs. This story isn’t the freshest (or a full-on report; baby steps, people), but with relatively new developments, and how little attention the story was given in general, it’s worth reviewing.

In spring of 2010, Arizona decided to ban ethnic studies classes in its public schools for grades K-12 (HB [House Bill] 2281). Of course, by “ethnic studies”, the state of Arizona meant “Mexican-American/Chicano” studies, and as Tuscon school board member Michael Hicks clarified:

“Honestly, this law won’t be applied to any other of our [ethnic studies] courses. It was strictly written for one course, which is the Mexican-American studies program.”

-Interview with The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal, 04/02/12 Continue reading

Evan and Gordon Talk: The Confederate Flag

GORDON: Today, we’re going to be touching on a nerve that’s still pretty raw in the US, even after a century and a half.

Specifically, we’re going to be talking about the ol’ stars and bars- the flag of the former Confederate States of America.

EVAN: I’d like to remind everyone reading this that I am a Canadian. The most experience I have with the Confederate flag is in seeing it on the top of the General Lee from the remake of, and not the original, Dukes of Hazard.

That being said, Gordon directed me towards an article written not too long ago on BBC, and there is an incredible amount of divisiveness regarding it as a symbol. Continue reading

Gordon Brown’s Labor Day Extravaganza

They say it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I’m going to gamble on that and offer this, my Labor Day extravaganza of random leftist agitprop which I’m going to pretend is somehow connected to the blog’s purpose in that it shows you a bit of a subculture you’re probably not familiar with.

While I am fully prepared for Evan to chew me out, I am hopeful that you, the faithful readers, will soften his hard heart by reminding him of these two important facts:

Firstly, it’s Labor Day.

In this country, that doesn’t mean much more than a last chance to get some barbecuing in while the weather’s still pleasant. Considering how pitiful the labor movement has been in this nation, a bit of red flag waving and raised fists is far overdue.

Secondly, today is my birthday.

Continue reading