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.

Cypress Mountain, British Columbia

After a lovely couple of weeks off from research, it’s back to my desk and its stacks of books. Thankfully, I feel refreshed from a trip to the west coast (see pic above and previous post). The stacks of books, which looked daunting before the break, look slightly more welcoming now.

One of the skills that any good graduate student has to master is the art of simultaneous reading. It is not uncommon to be in the middle of several books at a time. Full disclosure – I have not mastered this art. I often have several open books on my desk, waiting for me to pick them up again. And although I am generally better when I focus on one book at a time, I can appreciate those moments when a phrase or paragraph from one book seems to speak to another in some unexpected way, or when an author picks up the thread of another to push an argument a crucial step further. And even when the authors are working with different ideas or themes, research is the most fun when you can figure out a way to put them into conversation with each other.

Arranged around the themes of visual culture, archival imagery and desire, here are a few snippets of conversation that I hope to engage as my research moves forward:

W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?:

What pictures want, then, is not to be interpreted, decoded, worshipped, smashed, exposed, or demystified by their beholders, or to enthrall their beholders. They may not even want to be granted subjectivity or personhood by well-meaning commentators who think that humanness is the greatest compliment they could pay to pictures. The desires of pictures may be inhuman or nonhuman, better modeled by figures of animals, machines, or cyborgs, or by even more basic images – what Erasmus Darwin called ‘the loves of plants.’ What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all (48).

Julia Emberley’s Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal:

The colonial photographic archive, for example, constituted a key technology of representation that coincided with the epistemic violence of eugenics and miscegenation, forced sterilizations and hysterectomies, and, especially, the coercive use of domestic violence and wife battering, rape, and the sexual assault of indigenous male and female children in the residential schools (14).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History:

“Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

These moments are conceptual tools, second-level abstractions of processes that feed on each other. As such, they are not meant to provide a realistic description of the making of any individual narrative. Rather, hey help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed – or redressed – in the same manner. To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly (27).

Still figuring out how the above work together, but it’s coming together. Slowly but surely.

Hope everyone had a happy new year.

New Book: Other Tongues

December 10, 2010

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. It was an inspirational evening and I felt so honoured to be a part of the event and this amazing book.

Earlier in the week, I had decided that I wasn’t going to read an excerpt from my short story, “On the Train”. The idea of standing up in front of a room full of strangers to share this story made me too nervous. But as I sat in the audience and heard all these amazing women read their poems and stories, I gathered the courage and decided to read as well. I’m glad I did.

Thank you to the editors, Adebe D.A. and Andrea Thompson, the publishers Inanna Press (York University), and all the contributors who made the collection possible. I’m looking forward to reading the book from cover to cover.

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.

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