Being Political

I was not able to attend nearly as much of the final national event for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as I would have liked, but between discussion about it around the city and watching the livestream online, I have been thinking about what is happening, and maybe more importantly, what is not.

In the middle of an otherwise very positive contribution to the event, journalist Shelagh Rogers made an offhand joke about how Torontonians are looking on enviously at the mayors of Alberta’s two largest cities, whose statements of reconciliation were extremely well received around here. She then transitioned back to her panel facilitation with the phrase “not to get political, sorry”.

I have long been frustrated at the degree to which the term ‘political’ has come to stand in for party and electoral campaigning and posturing, rather than the pervasive influence of power in how our everyday lives are run and how we interact with others in our immediate and not-so-immediate surroundings. When politics is limited to the face at the head of the table and public decision making occurs only behind a temporary cardboard wall, it becomes so easy for so many Canadians to say that politics doesn’t matter to them, that it remains the unseemly and eye-roll-worthy business of the few who might sit at that table.

But to hear something like that said in the context of the TRC was much more striking.

As though truth and reconciliation are not political. As though apologies, restitution, healing and forgiveness – or the lack thereof – are not political. As though the assimilationist practices and acts of violence we were theoretically talking about were not and are not themselves political. As though the commitment – or the lack thereof – of non-Aboriginal Canadians to making reparations and restitution for these acts is not political. As though settler colonialism is not political.

As though it just is.

And then I heard, via Twitter contacts, stories of Aboriginal people in downtown Edmonton being arrested in places they go to seek support, for various types of socially unacceptable behaviours that relate directly to their experiences in residential schools or as intergenerational trauma survivors. And I saw another layer to the work of depoliticizing the life and death stakes of this political process of truth and reconciliation.

Writing about an unrelated (or at least, not directly related) story of racialized differences in perception and understanding of cause, effect, blame, and responsibility, Tressie McMillan Cotton observes that

Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. It is a role that requires the illusion of hope.


Of course, requiring hope is not functionally different from requiring drug tests for public welfare (when you are one of the publics, no less) or requiring women wear long johns to be justifiably victimized by a rapist or being told to bide your time as the majority catches up to the idea of your humanity.

Those Aboriginal people being arrested for publicly manifesting the unacceptable consequences of colonial violence and white racism are breaking down the illusion of hope, the illusion that reconciliation has already happened.

The big picture story I see around me reminds me that white settler Canadians are not ready for the political realities of reconciliation. We are not ready for a conversation about power, how we use it, and the terms we impose on sharing, or heaven forbid, relinquishing it. We want to attend the final sessions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while also being able to say ‘this is not political’.

As though that, in itself, is not political.


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