The Ideology of Reconciliation


Histories of reconciliation draw attention to its global dimensions, especially its relationship to transitional justice. Some argue that its origins in transitional justice reveal its inadequate application in a non-transitional context, “ideologically manufacturing” a break between a colonial past and a postcolonial present (Coulthard 2014)). Accepting this critique, others have argued for a conceptual re-working to take this into account or that this concept is deployed different on the ground by Indigenous actors themselves (Jung 2016).

But what accounts for the rise of transitional justice? Or, in other words, why reconciliation now?

In Paige Arthur’s history of transitional justice, the defeat of alternative political visions and alternative socio-economic conceptions of transition looms large. Essentially, the defeat of anti-colonialism and socialism leads political activists into a turn to morality, human rights, and a political-technical conception of transition (see also Moyn 2010).

For David Scott, the rise of transitional justice and the language of reconciliation is an effect of the confidence of liberalism after the defeat of socialism and anti-colonialism:

“During the era of the ideological and political rivalry between capitalism and communism, the justice or injustice of political actions was often described and adjudicated (in part, at least) by reference to a systemic social-moral imaginary that established a normative standard of right and wrong. Justice was not unconnected to moral truth, of course, but such moral truth inhabited a world of explicitly competing universalities. Now, by contrast, all of this seems self-evidently unacceptable; indeed, it all seems patently mistaken. The only truth today is that every human being has the right to a perspective on what is true. Therefore, arguably, there is no single point of view that can monopolize or guarantee the truth for all. What counts now is each story of what is true. Truth, so it is said, is ‘socially constructed’ within narratives of identity and community, with varying relations to structures and powers of authorization. Consequently, since there is no longer an overarching meta-truth by which to judge the injustice of the past (no master narrative, for example, of the class determination of social injury), victims and their persecutors are urged to adopt an attitude of reconciliation toward each other; they are urged to reconstruct the past in such a way as to enable them to conjure a reasonable, shareable, modus vivendi… To put it another way, because the present can no longer be overcome for a future of emancipation, there has to be an accommodation with the past. Truth and reconciliation and its central idiom of ‘forgiveness’ are the names of a moral politics for an age characterized by being stranded in the present” (14)

I think it makes some sense to interpret both Premier Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation in this light.

In a December 2016 speech to the Assembly of First Nations, Prime Minister Trudeau described his approach to reconciliation:

“Reconciliation does not mean that we, or even all members within this proud assembly, will agree on everything. I know that there are people in this room who deeply disagree with our position to move ahead with the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I know there are people here who agree with it. I also know that there are people who deeply disagree with our position not to move forward with the Northern Gateway pipeline, just as there are those who agree with it. The test of our relationship is not whether we’ll always agree. The test of our relationship is whether we can still move forward, together… Let’s not allow others to define our relationship for us or squander this extraordinary opportunity out of fear, mistrust or doubt. Let’s never give others the chance to think that we can’t make this work, or don’t care to. Instead, let’s look at the road ahead and take each step together with resolve.  We’re in the early days of this journey. I know that we will disagree at times – on which path to take, or at what pace.  Some of us might want to push on, others will need to rest. The important thing is that we keep moving forward, and that we keep moving forward together.”

Just the other day, in light of multiple solidarity protests, rail and port blockades, and a blockade of the legislature, Premier Horgan made a similar statement:

“Reconciliation is hard work. It does not begin or end with a single decision, event or moment. No single one of us decides what reconciliation can or should look like. It is a shared journey we are on together. We know that this work isn’t easy. If we’re going to achieve it, we have to stay committed to this process, keep engaging with one another and find common ground.”

In the face of overlapping economic and ecological crises, it is not at all clear that the confidence of liberalism holds, that reconciliation as a modus vivendi is at all possible. Here then the ideology of reconciliation changes form.

The approach to reconciliation as modus vivendi is ideological in that it presents these disagreements as ‘integrative’ – that party A and party B can find unity through their disagreement. This obscures the contradictions of settler colonial society – firming up the idea that the effects of settler colonialism are aberrations rather than constitutive – while also seeking to minimize and contain the politicization of these disagreements. That is, these approaches to reconciliation attempt to sidestep questions such as: In light of what we know about climate change, should we be expanding resource extraction projects for a few thousand temporary jobs? Should we continue to produce in a way that requires commodification, expansion, destruction, and therefore colonization? How free and democratic is our society if this is required given the fiscal crisis of the state and its needs for revenue? As noted above, those that continue to ask such questions exceed the ‘reasonable’ and are excluded, rendered irrational, radical, criminal, and are often met with the coercive arm of the state. It is through this combined obfuscation of contradictions and containment of politicization that reconciliation attempts to suture contradictions, binding us to the processes that gave rise to those contradictions and that seek to undermine the flourishing of life.

With Trudeau and Horgan then, I suggest we witness a shift in emphasis to the back half of Coulthard’s critique of reconciliation:

“… state-sanctioned approaches to reconciliation must ideologically manufacture such a transition by allocating the abuse of settler colonization to the dustbins of history and/or purposely disentangle processes of reconciliation from questions of settler-coloniality as such” (2014: 108, emphasis added).

And given how reconciliation seeks to minimize and contain the politicization of these disagreements, one might also say that if reconciliation under Harper was about effecting a closure between past and present, under Trudeau and Horgan it is more about effecting a closure between our present and alternative futures in the name of an enduring liberalism: from ideologically manufacturing transition to denying the necessity of transition as ideology. Here, thinking again with Scott, reconciliation as an ideology seeks to stall the present, to foreclose alternative futures.

To say “reconciliation is dead” is to announce the opening of such futures.