Reconciliation-to-forgive v. Reconciliation-to-forget


This past November 11th, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and others commemorated Remembrance Day (Veterans Day). One week later, during his keynote address at Hanoi National University, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to call for "reconciliation" with Vietnam, urging the Vietnamese to "bury the painful, painful past" and focus instead on "building a prosperous future." (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 18) What do these two events, one week apart, have to tell us about how Europeans and their descendents view "remembrance" as distinct from "reconciliation"? And how does this European notion of reconciliation compare with the notion propounded by indigenous peoples seeking acknowledgement and redress for land theft and cultural and physical genocide?

On November 11th, Europeans and their descendants admonish themselves never to forget the heroism and sacrifice of territorial conflicts recalled from their official histories. The newspapers and television are filled with commemorations, ceremonies, and recollections which focus mainly on WWI and WWII and on the suffering, sacrifice, and valor of the soldiers who fought in those wars. Following an annual practice begun in 1918, 200 million plastic poppies are distributed through England, Canada, the United States, France, Belgium, and the Commonwealth to serve as reminders of military sacrifice.

How does this contrast with the official language of reconciliation? Apparently, when we seek to reconcile, our goal is 1) to "settle" and "close" matters (Vatican reconciliation); 2) to "bury the painful, painful past" (President Clinton in Vietnam); or 3) to settle "problems...disputes...arguments" (Prime Minister Howard of Australia). The goal of reconciliation appears to be to remove events from our history, whereas the job of remembrance is to recall them. The Euro-American attitude toward reconciliation could almost be summed us as: "There -- I've apologized -- are you happy now? How much money will it take for you, once and for all, to go away and quit bothering me?" The fact that this posture is so dismissive -- so unfeeling -- explains in part why it fails and why some indigenous leaders refuse to accept apologies in this form. First Nations Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, for example, says he will not accept the Canadian government's apology for the "cataclysmic injury" inflicted by its residential school program of assimilating Native children. At his recent election as Grand Chief, Coon Come told the assembled chiefs that the government's expression of "regret" was like "the expression of regret felt by a rapist caught in the act. If the regret were sincere, the federal government would meet its obligations to the aboriginals by settling centuries-old debts incurred when most of the country was taken from its possessors." (Johnson, 2000)

There are two competing notions of reconciliation at work in the world today: reconciliation-to-forgive, and reconciliation-to-forget. Reconciliation-to-forgive has been pioneered and practiced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; reconciliation-to-forget is represented to varying degrees by President Clinton in Vietnam, the Liberal government in Canada, and the Vatican apology for the crusades.


Reconciliation-to-forget is a process of denial, justification, excuse, minimal grudging acceptance, carefully worded and fiscally cautious apology, and minimal negotiated compensation, concluded by a final resolution to settle matters once and for all. "Forgiveness facilitator" Sheldon Kumar calls this "sweeping away the webs of the past." A helpful parallel for this approach to reconciliation can be gleaned from the mechanisms of denial enumerated in John Conroy's recent book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. Finding commonalities in three different cases of government use of torture against citizens (U.K., U.S., Israel), Conroy presents what could be systematized as a series of seven steps governments use to deny, justify, or excuse abuses: (a) deny absolutely, (b) minimize the abuse, (c) disparage the victims and their supporters, (d) justify abuse as warranted under the circumstances ("they deserved it," or "they were just as bad"), (e) argue that abuse occurred so long ago as to be irrelevant to the present ("ancient history"), (f) grudgingly admit that if abuse did occur it was the action of misguided underlings ("bad apples"), (g) urge victims to put it behind them, get over it, bury it.

After grudging acceptance comes negotiation of compensation. But reconciliation in this sense does not entail forgiveness; it implies nothing more than forgiveness of a bad debt. The notion of debt springs from the moral accounting metaphor, "one of the most important moral concepts we have," according to philosophers Lakoff and Johnson (1999). They write, "When [parties] interact causally with each other, they are commonly conceptualized as engaging in a transaction, each transferring an effect to the other.... Thus moral action is conceptualized in terms of financial transaction.... Justice is when the moral books are is moral to pay your debts and immoral not to."

When a debt has been discharged, it can then be forgotten. The reconciliation-to-forget notion is in vogue today in large part due to forces of globalization. Says Kumar (2000), "Ironically due to globalization, sweeping away the webs of the past has become an unexpected new imperative of geopolitics." Cleaning up, settling past grievances, letting bygones be bygones -- all this is part and parcel of Euro-Americans wiping the slate clean so that they can design new societies in their newly adopted homelands.

But reconciliation-to-forget goes further. Euro-Americans are using it to stake a claim to indigeneity in their new homelands.(1) Other approaches include neutralizing the indigeneity of host peoples by arguing that all haman beings are immigrants from somewhere else: we all just arrived at slightly different times. The "Bering Strait Theory" of the immigration of Amerindians has proved helpful in this regard (Anishinabe activist Winona LaDuke calls it the "BS Theory"). An even more extreme rationale has been adopted by Brazilian environment officials seeking to nullify indigenous claims to parklands: the "vegetable immigration theory" propounded by the former Brazilian Minister of Parks purports that trees were earlier immigrants than humans, and since the Portuguese descendants are guardians of trees, their moral claim to the land leapfrogs any indigenous claims to the lands. (Bello, 2000)

As Noam Chomsky has said, Euro-Americans are not monsters, they simply cannot admit that their economic needs have driven them to commit terrible crimes in the name of territorial expansion; they therefore need to explain away their past. Reconciliation-to-forget is one of many ingenious ways Europeans avoid saying "our economic system is monstrous." And since it seems likely that their economies will continue to encroach into the territories of others, they will likely need further reconciliatory exercises in forgetfulness.

This spurious notion of reconciliation should concern indigenous peoples who are beginning to promote reconciliation in their dialogue with those European descendants who have laid claim to their homelands. James Prentice, the co-chair of Canada's Indian Claims Commission since 1991, warned in a recent address that history will not reflect kindly on Canada's land thefts:

Specific claims are outstanding lawful obligations owed by the Government of Canada to Indian Bands.... They arise, in general, from breaches of treaty, breaches of trust, and circumstances such as theft of land and flagrant violation of the fiduciary duties of the Crown.... In my view, Canadian history will judge the current specific claims process very harshly. There is, in my opinion, no other area of public policy in Canada, or perhaps any in other Western democracy, which operates in this manner.

Four Fictions of the "Great Transformation"

Between the years 1821 and 1932 alone, 34 million people immigrated to the United States from Europe, while 16 million went to Canada, Argentina, and Brazil; millions of others went to Australia and Southern Africa. It is important to note that in some years almost half of these immigrants were re-immigrants; that is, they were doing wage-labor in America for the second or third time, having returned home to an enclosed Europe desperate to buy a pied-à-terre in their true homelands.(2) A shortage of ownable land at home led Europeans to claim lands abroad -- a kind of real life game of musical chairs, albeit one with a tragic outcome. Thus the enclosure of southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America can only be understood against the earlier enclosure of England and Europe. The desperate scarcity of the means of life created by the ravages of enclosure and the other three fictions of capitalism (leaseable humans, currency, and the rise of corporations) created homeless masses eager to invade and claim the "new world." As Henry Luce said fifty years ago, democracy needs a lot more territory to support itself than tyranny does. (Shoup & Minter, 1977)

What Luce is referring to is the young civilization born of the "Great Transformation" of the past 500 years. 56 years ago, economist Karl Polanyi argued that as a result of the Great Transformation, this new civilization was dominated by four fictions: the illusion that pieces of the earth's surface could be owned by individual members of one species; the fiction that leasing humans is noble, whereas slavery -- owning humans -- is immoral; the fiction that colored paper and metal (money) can abstractly represent almost everything of value; and, finally, the superstitious faith in those "hugely fictitious bodies" called "corporations." These four fictions dissolve a society's roots -- they dissolve the essential connections between people and people, as well as people and place. (Rasmussen, 2000) And when a map of species extinctions is superimposed over a map of human wanderings, one discovers that the areas with greatest human immigration and emigration are the areas with the highest level of plant and animal extinctions. (Nabhan, 1997) People who connect with a place look after it; those who are rootless do not. "Globalization is creating a world of powerless places at the mercy of placeless powers." (Wachernagel & Rees, 1995) In the words of Wendat-Huron Georges Sioui, head of the Institute for Indigenous Governance:

Modern Amerindians...see the Euroamerican concept of society as mere artifice and illusion. Besides, it is increasingly obvious that the greatest worldwide crisis at the moment is the product of modern human beings who have lost their conscience and ignore the laws of nature. The ecological tragedy that future generations will experience is the harshest punishment the laws of our planet has ever had to impose on humanity.... It is now permissable [sic] to think, and urgent to see, that the notion of classifying societies according to their "evolution" has been sheer fantasy on the part of certain civilizations isolated from natural, fundamental needs, which have been busy seeking and perfecting theories to legitimatize their cultural imperatives. (Sioui, 1992)


But what of the other notion of reconciliation? Reconciliation-to-forgive is not about forgetting. "Without memory there is no healing," said Desmond Tutu, Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "We remember so that we can forgive. Without forgiveness, there is no future." This approach insists that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Reconciliation has a beginning, but no end. In the words of Georges Sioui's father: "The day is coming when the Indians will be understood and cease to suffer. Time is the Father of Truth." (Sioui, 1992) What follows borrows heavily from the work of Govier and Verwoerd (1999) in an attempt to formulate an outline of reconciliation as remembrance and forgiveness.

1) Empathy. The first step in reconciliation-to-forgive is empathy. This is the foundation of reconciliation; this is the foundation of civilization. One may not have experienced starvation, but one can empathize; thus we can wish that others were not starving and we can make an effort to alleviate their suffering. Empathy cannot be artificially evoked merely as part of a commercial agenda to bring (as the government in British Columbia says) "certainty" to land title so that economic activities may carry on unimpeded. Empathy is not something that can be state-ordered; which is why current AFN Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come has asked Euro-Canadians to visit First Nations to apologize directly, person-to-person.

2) Remorse. If we empathize with the suffering of others and we discover that we actually caused or are still causing that suffering, then remorse should flow automatically, and we should stop any and all of our actions that are causing suffering.

3) Public Apology. The Euro-descended government should acknowledge its wrongdoing and apologize for it. Most important is the moral recognition of the human worth and dignity of the victims; this acknowledgement is important, otherwise a "second wound of silence" is inflicted. (Govier & Verwoerd, 1999) A public apology is an example of how a government can make moral amends. Since reconciliation, in this understanding, is not an event, it does not aim to settle or bury matters, but aims to unearth and acknowledge painful matters long suppressed and denied. This sustained effort at moral amends will continue long after any practical amends are made (witness holocaust remembrance).

4) Practical Amends. The government makes restitution, offers compensation; nonetheless, both parties recognize that the wrongdoing cannot be absolved by money and is not merely reducible to a financial matter.

5) Never Again. Reconciliation acknowledges that the wrongdoing should never have occurred in the first place and should never happen again.(3)

This final step is key. Unless we understand our motivation for committing these acts -- unless we check to see whether the factors that spawned our monstrous acts have been rooted out -- then we will likely commit the same wrongs again. When we say that we resolve not to do these things in the future, we are saying that we commit to changing some of the assumptions guiding our lives. So, near the end of these observations, we address the beginning of the process: truth and reconciliation means truth before reconciliation. The Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples refers to this as healing with "an intercultural meaning": "Learning about and acknowledging the errors of the past, making restitution where possible, and correcting distortions of history are essential first steps in the process of healing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people." (RCAP, Vol. 5, 1996)

Commonwealth Panel of Reconciliation

In order to enact this process of reconciliatory forgiveness; in order to acknowledge that much of the world's land theft and cultural destruction stems from the same cause (namely the European exodus of 1500-2000), an international effort at reconciliation is required. Perhaps initially restricted to the Commonwealth, an international Panel of Truth and Reconciliation should be established to overcome the tendency of Euro-descended governments to treat their land thefts as purely domestic matters. The sophistry of modern land claims language holds that one signatory to an agreement can assume the role of partisan advocate as well as the role of supposedly objective adjudicator. Professor Anthony Hall has made clear the contradiction: "How could the newcomers' courts deliver impartial justice when it came to deciding the guilt or innocence of the newcomers' own legal establishment in rights and titles of those indigenous peoples affected by the European colonization of ancestral lands?"

Because Queen Anne recognized this contradiction nearly three hundred years ago in England, there is a firm legal and historical precedent for a Commonwealth Commission to assume a role in these matters. On March 9, 1704, in the case of Mohegan Indians v. Connecticut, "on the advice of her Privy Council, Queen Anne...called for the creation of a Royal Commission to give an objective, third party ruling on the legal contentions dividing the disputants." (Smith, cited in Hall, 2001). Subsequently, one of her commissioners (Commissioner Horsmanden in 1743) ruled that: "the matter of property in lands in disputes between the Indians as distinct people (for no act has shewn whereby they became subjects) and the English subject cannot be determined by the laws of our land, but by a law equal to both parties, which is a law of nature and nations." (Henderson, cited in Hall, 2001)

As well as initiating a sincere effort at reconciliation-to-forgive, a Commonwealth Panel of Reconciliation ought to be guided by the following three principles of dignity:

i) Spiritual Dignity. Hall has convincingly argued that, ultimately, conflicts between host civilizations and Europeans are conflicts stemming from religious differences. These competing religious claims were starkly illustrated by a skilled Salteux negotiator during his questioning of Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories in 1874. The Salteux diplomat was attempting to get Morris to give the Crown's justification for its claim to Saskatchewan; Morris answered: "The lands are the Queen's under the Great Spirit." (Hall, 1999) Obviously, the Salteux and other Host Civilizations felt -- and still feel -- that the Great Spirit bestowed lands differently. A Commonwealth panel would respect the spiritual dignity of indigenous peoples.

ii) Dignity of Civilizations. A Commonwealth panel would profoundly recast debates about the "developedness" and dignity of non-European civilizations. All these civilizations, regardless of whether or not they are "state-represented," would finally be considered dignified, mature peoples, not "undeveloped primitives." Their dignity would be affirmed without recourse to the yardstick of monetization of society (a yardstick which, in any case, may be used in the future to downgrade rather than exalt Euro-American civilization).

iii) Political Dignity (Dignity of Treaties). As the RCAP clearly stated, the relationship between host peoples and newcomers is a political relationship, not a racial one. From the very beginning, treaties have been signed between governing political bodies. A Commonwealth Panel of Reconciliation would recognize the political dignity of indigenous civilizations, even though they may not have chosen the European vehicle of state-representation. In Volume 2, the RCAP describes reconciliation as "More than just giving effect to a hunting right or securing the restoration of reserve land taken unfairly or illegally in the past":

We mean embracing the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship itself, a relationship of mutual trust and loyalty, as framework for a vibrant and respectful new relationship between peoples. New attitudes must be fostered to bring about this new relationship. A consensus will have to evolve that the treaty relationship continues to be of mutual benefit. New institutions must be created to bring this relationship into being. At present, the relationship between treaty parties is mired in ignorance, mistrust and prejudice. Indeed, this has been the case for generations.

A House of Host Peoples

Canada's Royal Commission called for "new institutions" to be created to bring about a new relationship between peoples and newcomers. In particular, the Commission's Recommendation #2.3.51 called for the establishment of an Aboriginal House of Parliament, or "House of First Peoples," an idea originally proposed by the Native Council of Canada in 1992. In order to truly reconcile, host Canadians and new Canadians need an assembly to meet within a place for discussion and deliberation. To reconcile comes from the latin root concilium -- meaning a calling together, an assembly, a gathering for deliberation. Canada's British-derived Houses of Parliament offer half of this assembly, reconciliation will truly require the other half -- the concilium, a third house of parliament, the House of Host Peoples. The name Canada comes from the Cree term Ka-Kanata-Aski -- "the land that is clean"; with a truly representative House of Host Peoples, the land that is clean would be a land cleansed of ignorance, not a land cleansed of history. Canada would offer a model of reconciliation-to-forgive, rather than just another example of reconciliation-to-forget.

References & further reading

Bello, A. (2000, April 20). Land disputes fuel anger over celebrations for 500th anniversary of Protuguese arrival in South America. The Guardian Weekly, Pp 3.

Conroy, J. (2000). Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. New York: Knopf.

Govier, T. & Verwoerd, W.J. (1999). The Practice of Public Apologies: A Qualified Defense. Unpublished.

Hall, A. (2001). The American Empire and the Fourth World (Part One of The Bowl With One Spoon). Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Johnson, W. (2000, July 14). Throwing down the gauntlet. The Globe and Mail, Pp A11.

Kolko, G. (1984). Main Currents in Modern American History. New York: Pantheon.

Kumar, S. (2000, April 10). The dawn of the Age of Forgiveness. The Globe and Mail, Pp R7.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

McIntosh, I. (2000, October). When will we know we are reconciled? Anthropology Today.

Nabhan, G. (1997). Cultures of Habitat. Washington: Counterpoint.

Polanyi, K. (1957). The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Rasmussen, D. (2000, October). Dissolving Inuit Society through education and money: the myth of educating Inuit out of `primitive childhood' and into economic adulthood. Interculture 139. Intercultural Institute of Montreal.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), Volume 2. Restructuring the Relationship. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), Volume 5. Renewal: A Twenty Year Commitment. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.

Shoup, W. & Minter, L.H. (1977). Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy. New York: Free Press.

Sioui, G.E. (1992). For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic, translated from French by Sheila Fishman. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Wackernagel, M. & Rees, W. (1995). Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island, BC & Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Wills, G. (2000, May 25). The Vatican Regrets. The New York Review of Books.

(1). Contrast this with the methodology espoused in Aboriginal Australia, where mutually beneficial adoptive strategies on the part of both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples are contingent on "remembership," honoring respective origins, traditions, and rights. (McIntosh, 2000)

(2). Gabriel Kolko is the only historian to have emphasized these points.

(3). Steps 3-5 are adapted from Govier and Verwoerd (1999).

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