Editor's Note: Rungh is moving towards having regular columnists. Please welcome David Garneau’s first column for Rungh.
Contronyms are words with opposite meanings. To dust is to remove fine particles from a surface—dust the bookshelves. Dusting is also the application of fine particles to a surface—a dusting of flour. To sanction means to approve but also to boycott—we sanction these sanctions. Contronyms are their own contradictions. An apology is an admission or expression of regret for causing an injury. An apology is also a defense or excuse for perceived wrong doing. In 2008, on behalf of the Canadian Government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to former students of Indian residential schools for the harm these institutions wrought. It was a profound admission. However, its language also implies the second kind of apology, a defense of settler ancestors.
The text’s central rhetorical strategy is to declare a difference between past and present settler selves:
“Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong…. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative…. the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes…. We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions…. We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children…. We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled….” [Emphasis mine.]
The anaphora, ‘we now recognize’, impresses by repetition and fiat rather than establishes by evidence that settlers have changed their views of Indigenous people. The document explains that prior to June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada did not “recognize” that their treatment of Indigenous children was wrong. This may mean that the aggressive assimilation of Indigenous people was objectively wrong but only officially recognized as such in 2008. The language is tricky. If “we now recognize” means that recognition and error are relative, then the Apology does not admit that these policies and practices were wrong at the time, and always, only that the government now sees them as wrong. This opens the door to both the soft suggestion that pre-Apology settlers did not know their anti-Indigenous policies and actions were wrong, and the more pernicious claim that they were actually right and good.
Rather than recognize the continuity of colonial ideas and tangible oppression, Euro-Canadian apologies for the aggressive assimilation of Indigenous people declare a clean break between former and current selves. It’s a neat trick. It settles settlers in the murky past and proposes Canadians as a burdened but new and enlightened aspirational identity. Next, settler apologetics evoke presentism, the argument that past folks can’t be judged by present standards. While it is clear that mores change from time to time and vary across cultures, few would argue that there are no common standards for good behavior, especially when it comes to the abuse of children. What happened to Indigenous kids in Indian residential schools was wrong. Wrong then, wrong now, wrong tomorrow, wrong here, wrong everywhere. While the Apology seems to agree, it subtly qualifies these actions not as moral wrongs but as errors. The text prepares a defense for settler ancestors who did wrong to do right. The Apology claims, for example, that abuses at Indian residential schools were because they were “inadequately controlled” by government. The fault was not a moral failing or colonial intention but a management problem.
Many settlers resist moral relativism on religious grounds, or just common experience. And, despite their governments’ desire to cleave them from their past, they feel some continuity with their ancestors. As a result, they require narratives that demonstrate that their kin were good people who thought they were doing good deeds. According to this story, Indigenous children were collateral damage during the pursuit of a greater Good. An apology is an admission or expression of regret for causing an injury. An apology is also a defense or excuse for perceived wrong doing.
Settler intent, according to the second paragraph of The Apology, was "‘to kill the Indian in the child’." That is, Euro-Canadians recognized that ‘Indian’ children were children, were human beings only if their non-human aspect, their ‘Indianess,’ was eliminated. The Apology declares that settler ancestors were mistaken; ‘Indian’ children can now be both ‘Indian’ and children. The document separates past settlers who were wrong from present settlers who are right. It also attempts to erase historical non-Indigenous dissent. From the earliest days of Indian residential schools, thoughtful priests, ministers, and other witnesses criticized the ill treatment of these children and their families. The epiphany of June 11, 2008, is a flash of insight blinding us to the generations of recognitions that precede it. The Apology’s binary also papers over the unevenness of settler enlightenment, the continuity of oppression, how Indigenous dispossession benefited settlers then and now, and how the good that ancestor settlers pursued was not the greater good, not a universal Good, but what was good for settlers.
Here we are, now, navigating the meanings, feelings, and actions of another contronym, Indigenization. Anthropology describes indigenization as when Indigenous folks adopt something from outside their culture, customize it, and make it their own. Venetian glass beads are indigenized when incorporated into ‘traditional’ Cree pow-wow regalia. The dynamic is one of selection, negotiation, and fair exchange. However, in the era of re/conciliation, Indigenize has come to means the opposite: settlers taking something Indigenous and making it their own. Many wonderful incremental changes are happening in universities, museums, art galleries, and other places where Indigenization is engaged with will and compassion. However, too often only those elements of ‘the Indigenous’—the ideas, stories, material culture, and people—that are useful to the dominant ideology are recognized, entertained, accommodated, and appropriated. Non-colonial Indigenization centers Indigenous agency rather than artifacts. It is a set of relationships rather than commodities. How will Indigenized institutions and relations of the future perform when Indigenous folks adopt, adapt, customize, and make them our own? Contronyms are exceedingly rare. That two, apology and Indigenization, are chosen for the dominant discourse around First Peoples is a colonial strategy worth considering.