Historical Truth and Reconciliation

by Zacharie Leclair

In his 1967 novel, The Joke, Czech-born author Milan Kundera tells the story of Ludvik, a young member of the Czechoslovak communist party who was persecuted and sent to a reeducation camp for having written a reactionary joke to a girl he was courting. During his twenty-year-or-so detention, Ludvik plans to avenge himself against his former friend, Pavel, who had reported him to the regime. Once liberated, Ludvik executes his plan and seduces Pavel’s wife. To his dismay, though, Pavel remains indifferent to his wife’s infidelity and, worse, can’t even recall his betrayal leading to his friend’s incarceration twenty years ago. Thus, the memory of the injustice he faced is lost, and the wrongs are never righted. The story ends with this gloomy dictum: “Everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed.”   

Kundera’s story exposes the problem of memory in relationship with justice. The revenge miserably fails because it misses its target—Pavel’s indifference towards his wife makes her seduction by Ludvik words writ in water—but it also reveals in a tragicomical turnaround that the injustice was forgotten anyway, making any attempt at justice inefficient. And Ludvik’s redressing effort becomes grotesque when Pavel simply mocks the whole situation. Historical amnesia thus enables the persistence of injustice, and then the trivialization of reality.    

This graphic representation of an Indian Residential School is part of a long timeline in “pictograph” style, within the “Spirit of Alliance” art installation, Saskatoon. (MCC Photo/ Randy Klassen)

In Restorative Justice, taking the victim’s story (or history) into account is essential for the reparation of the social bond broken by the wrong. On the political level, such a reparation process involves transparency with respect to the past (access to documents, monuments reflecting historical complexity, etc.). One recent event highlights the importance of access to historical records and exposes a tendency from the Canadian government to contradict its own commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. This government has been fighting in court for the destruction of thousands of archival papers documenting abuses committed by the staff of the St-Anne’s residential school in British Columbia. Since 2013, Ottawa has spent millions to battle lawsuits by survivors of residential schools. These cases rest heavily on the availability of documentary evidence. From 1906 to 1976 the St-Anne residential school received Federal funding. Under pressure, erasing traces of the past and hindering the judicial process seems to be the self-preserving reflex of the state.

Spirit of Alliance”: the young girl portrayed is Helen (c. 1808-1884), daughter of Col. Robert Dickson (British Army) and Ista Totowin (a prominent Dakota woman), witnessing a treaty made between Chief Wabasha (Dakota) and Col. Dickson, 1813.
This art installation in Saskatoon was commissioned by the Whitecap Dakota First Nation to commemorate the Indigenous allies of the Crown in the War of 1812. Artists: Adrian Stimson, Ian (Happy) Grove, Jean-Sebastien Gauthier. (MCC Photo/Randy Klassen)

Another recent situation exemplifies the issue of truth in relation to reconciliation, yet from a different angle. Before the most recent Montréal Canadiens home opener, for the very first time, the scoreboard displayed a land acknowledgment—an exercise now common throughout Canada but less popular in Québec— recognizing the former presence and ownership of Indigenous peoples, their dispossession, and their hospitality towards the diverse population of today. Perhaps the statement was well-intended, but it carried the false notion that Mohawks (or Kanyen’kehà:ka) had been the legitimate and historical inhabitants of Montréal. Archeology and historical evidence indicate that the Indigenous nation inhabiting Montréal at the time of Jacques Cartier’s second expedition (1535) were another people whom scholars today call Iroquoians of the Saint-Lawrence, linguistically related to yet distinct from the Mohawk people, who were extinct for unknown reasons when the French returned for settlement more than seventy years later (1608).

Originally from today’s Northern part of the state of New York and the vicinity of Lake Champlain, Mohawks settled in the Montréal area at the invitation of Catholic orders who gave them pieces of land (seigneuries) in the late 17th Century and during the 18th Century. After that, the French regime, then the British, and then the Québec government all simultaneously acknowledged and violated these concessions, what is known as the 1990 Oka Crisis being one recent symptom of this, hence the need to honour the Mohawk’s contribution to Montréal today. But the Montréal Canadiens’ inaccuracy and indifference to historical truth—which is in fact well known among Mohawks[1]—reflect a tendency among the dominant society to take the issue of truth very lightly. After some public debate and statements by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), the Montréal Canadiens published a new version of the land acknowledgement, which was later affirmed by the MCK.

The Coming Spring by artist Gordon Reeve is part of Reconciliation Circle in Saskatoon’s Victoria Park. This commemorative artwork was erected in 2018 in response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. (MCC Photo/Randy Klassen)

It is for the sake of historical truth, at least in part, that I commit my work as a researcher at MCC Canada’s Peace & Justice Office. Naturally, many perspectives on facts and on how we arrange them coexist and often clash, and “what really happened” (after historian Leopold von Ranke’s notorious axiom) can be difficult to ascertain. Precisely because of that, handling the past with historical rigour and humility is crucial when it comes to reconciling with historically oppressed peoples.

Jesus himself reminded us that freedom stems from knowing the truth (John 8:32), a warning he gave the religious authorities of his time, the very ones whose privilege it was to define justice and truth, and who held themselves in the highest esteem. We owe it to ourselves to treat the past with an equilibrium of carefulness (with respect to accuracy) and boldness (to expose the truth), or amnesia and trivialization will prevail, as in Kundera’s tale.

Zacharie Leclair is located in Montreal and is the Research and Communication Assistant for MCC Canada’s Peace & Justice Office.

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This article is also available in French.

[1] Many Indigenous leaders and thinkers are critical of the “empty words” and political recuperation of the land acknowledgment mode. Some also deplore the risk of publicizing inaccurate territorial notions in a context where claims are currently in dispute. See https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/land-acknowledgments-what-s-wrong-with-them-1.6217931

One thought

  1. An excellent piece. It helps connect the work I do as a history educator to my faith and I appreciate that connection very much.

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