Reconciliation at the Kitchen Table

  • Linda Goyette, Kathleen Steinhauer , Nellie Carlson and Maria Campbell
    Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
  • Joylene Nowell Butler
    Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants. Theytus Books (purchase at
Reviewed by David Gaertner

The books under review here unpack the intricacies of Canadian redress culture as it unfolded out of the 1980s, tracing the contours of Canada’s position in what Elazar Barkan terms, in The Guilt of Nations, “the new international morality” as a first-world, colonial nation state. At stake in both texts is the upset of a national narrative that mobilizes redress and apology to disavow colonial histories and perpetuate the myth of Canadian benevolence. However, as unique collaborative efforts, both texts also help to establish what reconciliation might mean as a textual practice in a discourse that, as Marlene Brant Castellano argues in her contribution to From Truth to Reconciliation, requires “a thousand points of encounter.”

As political concepts, reconciliation and redress are still contemporary ideas. According to Barkan, as the Cold War drew to a close, “moral issues came to dominate public attention and political issues and displayed the willingness of nations to embrace their own guilt. This national reflexivity is the new guilt of nations.” Before the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s, realpolitik (diplomacy based on material and practical considerations, as opposed to moral premises) was the primary international politic. The race to increase, reinforce, and protect ideology, be it capitalist or communist, compelled nation states to take staunchly defensive positions, which did not permit the space for governments to admit responsibility for harm inflicted on their own citizens by the State itself-for instance via apology or restitution. Tension began to ease across the globe with the 1986 Reykjavík Summit and the 1989 collapse of the Berlin wall; with these events, the humanitarian consequences of realpolitik became more apparent and the call for change grew louder. Citizens in both the East and the West recognized the need for an alternative to power politics, which had nearly led the world to nuclear destruction. Détente signalled a new international political climate founded in morality. In the moral turn from realpolitik, nations were compelled to address the crimes they had committed against their own citizens, leading to the deluge of nation state Commissions and Tribunals aimed at addressing, redressing and reconciling internal crime inflicted by the state: for instance in Uganda (1986); Chile (1991); El Salvador (1992); Yugoslavia (1994); Guatemala (1994); Rwanda (1994); South Africa (1995).

Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress, a collection of essays and historical documents edited by Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham, is a recent contribution to a growing archive of texts that map out a topography of “the new international morality” as it builds out of the 1980s. Reconciling Canada is also the first text to comprehensively unpack Canada’s unique position in this history, marking it as an important contribution to both Canadian and reconciliation studies. While the current Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CTRC) incited the production of this text, the collection of essays is an account of the individual threads that make up the fabric of Canadian redress as it unfolded out of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the moral turn Barkan identifies. According to Henderson and Wakeham, “Reconciling Canada seeks to broaden the terms of debate for understanding the rise of reconciliation as a prominent social paradigm, arguing for the necessity of tracing the complex relations between a range of redress movements that have, through processes of cross-pollination, collectively shaped the contemporary and political fields.”

Reconciling Canada’s most important contribution to the field of Canadian and reconciliation studies lies precisely in how it incorporates a wide range of perspectives and historical moments to illustrate the complexity with which the culture of redress has developed, and continues developing, in Canada. Via a cultural studies lens, the essays and appendices in this collection (the latter of which makes up one-third of the text) make evident that redress and reconciliation have played a definitive role in the formation of contemporary Canadian identity, not just in its major movements (notably Japanese Canadian Redress and the CTRC) but in the political and cultural events that have yet to be framed within a reconciliatory framework (Air India, the Maher Arar case, the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards). As such, this book pushes the limits of what reconciliation in Canada is and stretches the boundaries of what it might accomplish as a first-world politic-both as a strategic deployment of conservative ideology and as an interruption of that ideology.

The dialectic that arises between the transformative and assimilative potentials of reconciliation in Reconciling Canada develops organically out of the collection of voices in the text with authors making reference to one another’s arguments. As such, reconciliation, as a textual practice, is established as a conversation in process. Indeed, the text’s large appendices reinforces the notion that Reconciling Canada is constructed as a resource-a place to begin, test, and develop research. While “reconciliation” is roundly critiqued as a tool of the nation state in Reconciling Canada, Henderson and Wakeham make good on their introductory promise to explore ways in which reconciliation can also “disrupt” Canada’s beneficent national narrative, “its singularity of perspective, its teleological assumptions, and its undisputed righteousness” (15). Analysis of the potentiality of reconciliation is clearly the more difficult thread of critique to maintain in this text, as there simply seems to be so much more evidence against reconciliation as transformative politics-particularly in a settler colonial context. Indeed, the majority of work being produced elsewhere in the field at this time is focusing on “the current entanglement of settler coloniality with the politics of reconciliation,” to use Glenn Coulthard’s phrase from the forthcoming book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.

Locating the possibility of redress that Henderson and Wakeham gesture towards in their introduction can be difficult because of the dexterity with which the state seems able to recuperate it, not to mention the theoretical nuance with which critics are able to apply to its analysis. Still, Reconciling Canada includes important interventions into reconciliation as a counter-hegemonic mode of inquiry. For instance, Len Findlay’s contribution to the text offers incisive analysis of work from Sa’ke’j Henderson, Lori Blondeau, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, which affirms the potential of “new modes of knowledge keeping and knowledge making” in the reconciliatory process. Roy Miki’s analysis of Kerri Sakamoto’s One Million Hearts, which he reads as a “post-redress literary work,” brings “to surface the practices of life and culture that unfold beneath the radar of state power” (quoting Kandice Chuh) by illustrating the transnational implications of a national discourse of reconciliation.

Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants, focuses on an issue that is rarely considered under the trope of redress, but which has made a significant contribution to Canada’s “moral” politics: the 1985 amendment of the Indian Act via Bill C-31. In the 1951 Indian Act revisions, the federal government eliminated the treaty rights of “red-ticket holders,” women with treaty status who had married non-status or Metis men. Under this legislation, thousands of Aboriginal women and their children lost their status and legal claims to their land, resources and homes-which also threatened the connection to culture and traditional knowledge for many families. Building out of the socio-political momentum of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Bill C-31 gave many Indigenous women (and men) back the status and land they were denied via state definitions.

A collaborative project between Nellie Carlson, Kathleen Steinhauer and Linda Goyette (with major contributions from Maria Campbell and the late Jenny Margetts), Disinherited Generations is an oral, autobiographical, as-told-to narrative of two Cree women, Carlson and Steinhauer, who helped to organize Indian Rights for Indian Women and whose efforts eventually amount to Bill C-31. Bill C-31 aligned the Indian Act with the gender equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “including significant changes to Indian status and band membership, with three major goals: to address gender discrimination of the Indian Act, to restore Indian status to those who had been forcibly enfranchised due to previous discriminatory provisions, and to allow bands to control their own band membership as a step towards self-government” (UBC Indigenous Foundations). As a direct result of Carlson and Steinhauer’s work, the number of “registered Indians” in Canada more than doubled, from about 360,000 in 1985 to 824,341 in 2010-radically impacting the face of Aboriginal/State relations in Canada, and with it the face of what “reconciliation” looks like today in Canada.

One of the most significant things about Disinherited Generations, aside from being a remarkable historical account of the Bill, is the way in which Goyette makes space for Carlson and Steinhauer to share this history as they would at the kitchen table. Carlson and Steinhauer are old friends; Goyette is a journalist who has known the two women for years; the book is written to best capture this history as it unfolds as a conversation between these three in their homes. In Goyette’s carefully composed introduction (which includes the terms of the contract the three signed before beginning the project), she lays out the meticulous processes by which she Carlson, Steinhauer-and later the publishers-negotiated the politics of an as-told-to narrative and worked to capture the tone of Cree and Metis spoken culture. At the core of this project is a desire to inject these cultures into Canadian history and academic debate. Towards the end of her introduction, Goyette writes, “[i]t is a cold day in Edmonton. Imagine that you are sipping hot soup and listening to Kathleen Steinhauer and Nellie Carlson as they begin to tell an important story. A blizzard will keep you here all afternoon while time stops. Would you like some bannock?”

The hospitality offered here does not depoliticize this book. Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks argues that “kitchen table” dialogue, such as the kind that Goyette is able to capture, must be held in relation to academic discourse when Indigenous issues are at hand. The kitchen table is not a complimentary space to the academy (because it in no way relies on it) but it is an equally rigorous space of debate and conversation, which can bring necessary life to lecture hall debate-should the hosts wish to include it. Brooks makes it clear that one space (kitchen table or academic desk) is not necessarily more important than the other-indeed she makes clear that the university offers its own kind of “haven”-but she does insist that the kitchen table offers an environment to “unpack” politics in a way that compels thinkers to consider their ideas as pieces of a larger conversation that is alive, dynamic and, most importantly, practiced in Indigenous space.

Carlson and Steinhauer generously invite academics to sit at their kitchen table and to share in and be enlivened by, the story of the struggle towards Bill C-31. Goyette makes it plain that the authors, “would like university professors and their students to investigate Canada’s historic discrimination against Aboriginal women, and to produce new and comprehensive academic research and analysis for the public.” Indigenizing these archives-inviting researchers to the kitchen table to share Aboriginal history-Carlson, Goyette and Steinhauer offer a uniquely Cree and Metis space for scholars to build research and structure argument. In the way it performs storytelling and conversation, Disinherited Generations enacts the kitchen table and challenges readers to unfold Canada’s “moral turn”-so intimately connected to The Charter of Rights and Freedoms-with careful attention to the Indian Act and Aboriginal rights.

In the ways that they employ the collaborative form, both Disinherited Generations and Reconciling Canada gesture to the ways in which collective projects can begin to respond to a discourse that permeates the modern sociopolitical experience and informs intersubjective relations across cultural, historical, political and methodological borders.

This review “Reconciliation at the Kitchen Table” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 142-45.

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