The Theatre of Regret: Literature, Art, and the Politics of Reconciliation in Canada. University of British Columbia Press
I began writing this review the morning of May 27, 2021. Later that day, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanne Casimir announced that a preliminary ground survey had identified the bodies of 215 children buried in an unmarked grave on the site of the former Kamloops residential school run by the Catholic Diocese of Kamloops. Chief Casimir and other Indigenous leaders, community members, and scholars responded to the news as a devastating confirmation of crimes long acknowledged by Indigenous communities. Affirming the complex generational trauma and grief evoked by the graves in Kamloops, Indigenous responses to Chief Casimir’s announcement also emphasized that this is a still ongoing trauma and one that expands beyond the Kamloops school. Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), noted that there are likely many more burial sites at former residential schools across the country. The 2015 final report of the TRC estimated that upwards of four thousand Indigenous children died while incarcerated in residential schools.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to Chief Casimir’s announcement first on Twitter, describing the identification of the grave as “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.” Other state agents and settlers followed. Many of these responses, including Trudeau’s, drew attention to the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line or encouraged donations to Indigenous organizations. State and settler responses did not call for the accountability of perpetrators in the deaths of children at the Kamloops School.
Settler responses to the public identification of a mass grave of Indigenous children are unfolding in alignment with the performances of state morality that David Gaertner diagnoses in The Theatre of Regret. With roots in the Nuremberg trials and post-Cold War mobilizations of reconciliation as a means of facilitating shifts in power, the theatre of regret is a promise of political change that amounts to performance. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have emerged around the world—the subject of chapter 1 in Gaertner’s text—and have changed how governments perform their relation to history. While appealing to the concept of reconciliation as inherently healing, Gaertner demonstrates that the Canadian theatre of regret has not created meaningful material change for survivors of the Indian Residential School system, nor of other forms of ongoing settler-colonial violence.
The Theatre of Regret examines the rhetorical and aesthetic functions of acknowledgement, apology, redress, and forgiveness. Centring literary works by Indigenous poets, novelists, and playwriters, Gaertner’s analysis foregrounds Indigenous critiques of Canada’s performative approach to reconciliation. A significant contribution of the book is the research design and materials: literary and discursive critiques of reconciliation unfold alongside the assessment of the practical politics of reconciliation in Canada. Each chapter centres Indigenous practices of refusal and interruptions of
apology discourse and other state performances. Gaertner’s interpretations of creative works are grounded in his critiques of how reconciliation is used politically by federal and provincial governments, churches, and other settler organizations. This interwoven structure creates a compelling account of the limitations of state-centric or “shallow reconciliation” (221, 225) and, in particular, how such performances reify settler authority and bolster the continued dispossession of land and resources. The crux of settler reconciliation’s performativity is that, Gaertner explains, transition of power and relinquishing of settler-controlled resources “is never a part of the conversation” (50). Instead, settler performances of apology and solicitations of forgiveness from Indigenous communities have been designed to enclose the violence of colonization within a narrative of historical wrongs that can be accepted and moved on from.
Gaertner presents the limitations of settler reconciliation most starkly in chapter 3, where he analyses Canadian state apologies for the Indian Residential School system alongside the empty apology of Thomas King’s Coyote character in Green Grass, Running Water. As a key scene in the theatre of regret, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology—referred to by the Harper administration as a “Full Apology”—was offered as “a sorry that covers all ground, leaves no wound unhealed, and thus needs no further thought, conversation, or deliberation” (111). Moving swiftly from offering the apology to requesting its acceptance, Gaertner argues that Harper’s apology did not leave adequate space for reflection or deliberation. Instead, the apology served settler state interests by limiting responsibility in terms of isolating the residential schools as an anomalous rather than representative dimension of assimilative settler-colonial politics, as well as ascribing responsibility to schools rather than also holding individual perpetrators accountable. Or, in Coyote’s words: “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry” (107).
The other modes of reconciliation examined in the book are also characterized by the substitution of performed apology for substantive political change coupled with the expectation of swift and complete acceptance by Indigenous peoples. From limited acknowledgement of crimes and their ongoing impacts through to the compensation calculus that characterizes settler approaches to redress and Christian ideologies of forgiveness, Gaertner demonstrates how state-centric reconciliation has been designed and enacted in ways that insulate the state from substantive reparation for harms, such as the return of land and compensation for lost access to resources that support Indigenous lifeways. Performances have material effects and Gaertner does not deny that the 2008 apology, the TRC’s work, and other instances of settler reconciliation have been meaningful in different ways to Indigenous peoples. However, as the Indigenous authors he engages make clear, performance is a limited action and state performances in Canada have been offered as a way of closing the discussion of colonization and moving on, shutting down the need for further action. Summarizing the closed loop of the 2008 apology, Gaertner writes, “the apology was the action” (111).
In addition to analyzing reconciliation through the lenses of Indigenous literature and Canadian political history, Gaertner’s book contributes to existing critical analyses of reconciliation discourse, redress politics, and state apologies by situating Canada’s TRC within a global context. In the first chapter, Gaertner highlights several precursors, including Uganda (1974), Chile (1990-91), South Africa (1995-2002), and Australia (1991-present). The genealogy demonstrates the portability and recursiveness of reconciliation. In each context, reconciliation validates and is validated by its predecessors, a political tool adapted for local histories but drawn from a transnational history of state performance. Gaertner observes that perpetrator testimony was a key aspect of South Africa’s TRC, and reconciliation and apology were mutually constitutive elements of the transition of power sought by Chile’s TRC. However, Canada’s TRC specifically excluded perpetrator testimony and—much like Australia’s reconciliation projects—has done little to move from performances of apology to substantively addressing lived experiences of ongoing settler colonization.
While the book primarily engages Indigenous literature, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s video installation Apparition (2013) serves as a compelling opening to The Theatre of Regret. Gaertner narrates his experience with Belmore’s performance of both the devastating intergenerational impacts of language loss and the refusal to perform her or her community’s suffering for settler consumption. The installation—and Gaertner’s analysis of it—gestures towards a deeper or Indigenous-centred reconciliation. Like the looping of Belmore’s video, a deeper reconciliation would be ongoing rather than circumscribed by settler desires for closure. While Gaertner refers to Belmore’s work again in chapter 1, the video installation and the TRC’s Witness show in which the video was exhibited then falls out of focus. Similarly, Gaertner’s methodology of witnessing is carefully described in the introduction, but comes in and out of focus throughout the text. It strikes me that more consistent engagement with this space of orientation of settler witnessing would bolster the book’s methodological contributions.
The Theatre of Regret will be of interest to readers in literary studies, critical Indigenous studies, political science, and settler-colonial studies. Gaertner’s analysis shows what to expect of state-centred settler reconciliation: apologies, solicitations of quick forgiveness, desires to consume Indigenous pain, and the bolstering of colonial capital. In itself, this critique is an important tool for identifying state morality performances as they unfold. A further value of the book lies in Gaertner’s articulation of what another model of Indigenous-led reconciliation could look like. Drawing from Indigenous literature and critical theory, Gaertner points readers to routes that diverge from settler-dominated reconciliation and which would substantively acknowledge the ongoing impacts of residential schools as well as other ongoing acts of colonial violence, would hold space for both testimony and its refusal, would build time and space for the consideration of apologies, and, crucially, would involve meaningful transfers of land and other resources required for the flourishing of Indigenous lifeways, economies, and cultures.
As I finish this review on June 1, 2021, flags across the country have been lowered to half-mast. Perpetrators have been identified in many previous studies and reports on residential schools. More regrets for this “dark chapter” in Canada’s history have been expressed, but no one will be held to account. Trudeau has addressed the House of Commons: “Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough.” This performance of apology’s limits appears to be the limit of settler state action. It does not move beyond the theatre of regret.
“Prime Minister’s remarks in the House of Commons on the tragic legacy of residential schools.” Office of the Prime Minister, 21 Jun. 2021, pm.gc.ca/en/news/speeches/2021/06/01/prime-ministers-remarks-house-commons-tragic-legacyresidential-schools.
Trudeau, Justin. “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart – it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history . . .” Twitter, 28 May 2021, twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1398325696431263745?s=20&t=Pd8280DSIVbwC57ZP2qgqw.