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Aboriginal Apology discourse analysis

Created for the University of Toronto's Aboriginal Worldviews in Education course: https://www.coursera.org/course/aboriginaled. The plain text version of this analysis can be found in the course shell.
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Aboriginal Worldviews

on 8 March 2013

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Transcript of Aboriginal Apology discourse analysis

Aboriginal Apology
Discourse Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Analysis Let’s begin by asking to whom is this apology addressed? While Harper offers his apology to the former students, he “stands before” the speaker. Even within this opening address, the tension between the apology being for the survivors and the apology being for the nation is clear.We need to ask what history of the nation is being told. By describing the Indian Residential Schools as a “sad chapter in our history”, Harper suggests that the violence of the IRS can be quarantined to the past, that it was one segment of our history that we can write up and move on from. What this fails to address is that IRS was part of a long and ongoing colonial project of racial violence. This section begins with Harper invoking the (largely unhonoured) treaties as justification for the creation of IRS. While the government is, according to treaties, responsible for education, to invoke the treaties as justification for IRS is disingenuous at best, and insultingly decontextualizing at worst. Harper makes the claim that the government simply played a role in the creation and administration of the schools, and yet, the state made it law for every Indigenous child to attend the schools by 1920. Significantly, this section also tells a more complete history of IRS than previously acknowledged by the government. But, Harper is quick to put this history safely in the past. “Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong”, he says, suggesting that the conceptual worldview that produced the IRS is no longer widespread (which is not the case, if we acknowledge it as part of the long and ongoing colonial project in Canada). By quarantining the racism of IRS to the past, Canadians get to feel good about their membership to a nation that has transcended its racism and apologized for its mistakes. Hence the very enthusiastic applause that comes at the end of this clip. Continued... While these few sentences paint a picture of the atrocities committed within the schools, it falls far short of actually naming and taking responsibility for the violence. In other words, the violence against Indigenous children is at once named and disavowed. Harper claims the death of children to be ‘tragic’, which no doubt they were, and yet this language denies the explicitly genocidal intention of the schools. It suggests that the deaths were anomalies rather than the norm (government medical inspector P.H Bryce reported anywhere from 47% to 75% of students died in the schools or shortly after returning home [Milloy 99]). Here Harper returns to the idea that the relations and conceptual worldview that gave rise to IRS are in the past and bear no meaning on contemporary politics. The government “now recognizes” that the IRS as a policy of assimilation was wrong. But, specifically, the government recognizes that “this” policy of assimilation was wrong, not the idea of assimilation itself. We also need to think about what subjectivities are being produced. Harper uses the phrases, “helpless children” and “powerless families and communities”. While, indeed, these phrases do name the social relations that were and are, but to declare them so without explicitly naming the process of their construction (colonialism), he risks reinscribing them as natural. Continued... Here Harper overstates the significance and currency of the apology before it has been completely uttered and received. By claiming that “regrettably” many former students died without receiving the apology, Harper inflates the meaning of the apology before receiving any feedback. Apologies, according to the conventions of linguistics, require that the apology be acknowledged and/or accepted by the receiver in order to satisfy the act as meaningful. By assuming its acceptance, Harper undermines the very conditions necessary for a sincere and meaningful apology. Here Harper makes it clear how much of a national project this apology is. He insists on the centrality and vitality of the House of Commons to a Canadian national identity, and apologizes on behalf of all Canadians. Not only does this make a statement about who belongs in the nation and who does not, those who identify with this narrative can become proud Canadian citizens, those who do not no longer belong to the group “all Canadians”. But also, this places the responsibility for good relations away from the individual settler and into the intangible hands of the government. Harper also apologizes for the IRS being “inadequately controlled”, suggesting that had the schools been better controlled an apology would be unnecessary. And, finally, he apologizes for having failed to protect Indigenous people, and the glaringly obvious question is: from whom? Continued... Here Harper insists that the burden of the experience should be on the nation. What, we might ask, does it mean for the burden of experience to be on the nation? Who becomes responsible for dealing with the history, the present and the future? To insist that there is “no place” in Canada for the attitudes that produced the IRS is simply not true, provoking legitimate concern that the recovery Harper refers to is actually a recovering of innocent Canadian identity, and a re-covering of the Canadian colonial project more generally. This final section of the apology makes it clear that the new relationship Harper speaks of is more about enfranchisement than about recognition and respect for the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. A stronger Canada is the final message, one that is ‘moving forward’ to the ever marching beat of progress, regardless of the violence that has riddled its past (and present). The final sentence, “God bless our land” not only reasserts the dominance of the Judeo-Christian God, under whose name the residential schools were run, but also insists that the land is “ours”. The theft and violence in the pronoun ‘our’ remains a most chilling moment in the apology. Can an apology for a colonial institution that ends with a reassertion of the naturalness of settlers’ entitlement to land ever adequately address racial violence? Continued...
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