Addressing atrocity in the Canadian state: The discourse of ‘legacy’ and the comprehension of historical injustices

Date

2023-08-28

Authors

Stilwell, Sarah F.

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Abstract

As coming to terms with historical injustices have become a pressing concern for contemporary Canadian politics, a variety of discourses are engaging with what sorts of reparative responsibilities and accountabilities are necessary for harms inherited in the present. Since the late 1980s, reparative efforts in the Canadian state have focused on political recognition, compensation and official apologies for those harmed or otherwise impacted by injustices. Dominant discourse, however, has demonstrated a tendency to frame injustices as sad chapters, isolated moments of poor discretion, or the actions of imperfect individuals in their historical context. Today, monuments celebrating Canadian nation-building legacies are being confronted by their associated legacies of harm, exclusion, and white supremacy. As critical studies of the construction of Canadian identity have argued, narratives of ‘Canada’ and what it means to be Canadian have centred tenets of whiteness, settler colonialism, masculinity and Britishness. Reminders of these cornerstones of nation, and the figures and events that advanced them, populate everyday existence through monuments, place-naming of streets and public parks, architecture, and other heritage sites. In these contexts, nation-building figures and events are often framed as persisting, bearing on our present conditions and beneficial circumstances, while legacies of injustice associated with these figures and events are often framed as an event, a footnote, reduced through sanitized narratives, or not presented at all. The distinction between what endures, and what does not, seems perplexing. Understanding the continued dominance of these discourses and framings as an obstacle to promoting historical dialogue and accountability, I examine how the concept of political legacies operate in Canadian political discourse—a concept central to what representations of the world are inherited and seen as foundational and valued for the present and future, yet which has been conceptually overlooked as the subject of critical analysis. Advancing this premise through the political thought of Hannah Arendt and Foucauldian genealogy, I suggest that political legacy narratives have the ability to reinforce sanitized narratives of historical injustices in the Canadian state. Through an investigation of recent initiatives and contention surrounding revising, rewriting and rethinking the celebration of problematic pasts in the present, this research aims to develop paths forward for critically analyzing oppressive legacies and rethinking reparative responsibilities for enduring injustices.

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Keywords

Historical injustices, Heritage politics, Political legacies, Genealogy, Accountability and reparations, Hannah Arendt, Memory

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