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Truth and Reconciliation Day

black-and-white photograph of Native American soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

On September 30th, Canada recognized its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation following a year where the bodies of hundreds of First Nations children were discovered in mass graves on the sites of former residential schools. Across the country, the day has been considered an important step forward in addressing many of the historical wrongs perpetrated on First Nations people within Canada. However, since then most of the media and larger public attention on the day has been preoccupied with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to forgo meetings with First Nation leaders on September 30th so that he could instead go to the beach with his family. But while many have chosen to take this opportunity to point out the moral failings of the Prime Minister, is it possible that this represents a larger moral failure of the country?

The adoption of September 30th as a statutory holiday to allow for public commemoration of the history of residential schools followed recommendations made in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report called for a statutory holiday to be created to “honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Beyond this, however, the exact meaning and intention of this day isn’t exactly clear to everyone.

Even before the day had come, First Nations critics had noted that this was an extremely small step, representing only 1 of 8 other recommendations that have been implemented out of a total of 94. Critics also note that in light of this, the day feels like an empty promise because of the lack of plans of action for the day, making the federal statutory holiday ring hollow. According to the Canadian Heritage Minister, there were no details for any federal plans to mark the day as commemorations should be led by indigenous people. Canadian Senators were also concerned about what this day was supposed to represent. One noted again that this was only one of 94 recommendations which was rushed to adoption following the discovery of mass graves, and questioned whether a statutory holiday will simply be “a day to stay home and put up our feet and watch TV.”

Of course, the day is supposed to mean more than that. Given that this is a day of reconciliation between Canadians and First Nations, and that this was declared a national holiday, it presumably should carry meaning for the whole Canadian public as well as First Nations. But what meaning is it supposed to have exactly? Was this a symbolic gesture meant to convey a sentiment or was this a policy decision meant to change public relations when it comes to First Nations? What goals does the government hope to achieve? According to the Heritage Minister the government hopes it will be a day for Canadians to “reflect.”

This theme of “reflection” is one that the government often likes to bring up when it comes to discussing reconciliation issues. On Canada Day, when the national conversation questioned the merits of national celebration in light of the discovery of mass graves, Prime Minister Trudeau again stressed reflection. “Many, many Canadians will be reflecting on reconciliation, on our relationship with Indigenous Peoples and how it evolved and how it needs to continue to evolve rapidly.” But reflect how? In what ways? When 1/8th of your strategy for reconciliation is to create a holiday and your plan is just to tell people to “reflect,” it doesn’t inspire much faith that you’ve taken the idea that seriously.

This is not to say, of course, that serious public commemoration or reflection did not take place or that such a day of commemoration should not take place. Broadcasts took place honoring Indigenous people, articles were written suggesting different ways to meaningfully recognize the day, and across the country various events took place including flag-raising, drum performances, prayers, protests, and commemorations for the children who were victims of residential schools. But, what this does begin to suggest is that the Canadian Government wasn’t treating this day with the seriousness it should have.

What’s more is that this is a federal statutory holiday. Federal holidays only apply to a limited number of industries in Canada. However, the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon have refused to recognize the day as a statutory holiday. This means that more than 60% of Indigenous people in Canada will not be allowed to take the day off. While critics have made their objections to not declaring September 30th a statutory holiday at the provincial-level known, the counter argument is that a statutory holiday lowers productivity. Of course, the Ontario Government still insists that it would observe the 30th as a day to, you guessed it, “reflect.”

Nevertheless, there are no massive outcries from the public for governments to change their minds about this, at least, not big enough to make a government actually change course. My point is that both at the level of the Federal Government and at the level of the Canadian public at large, there seems to be a lack of a serious commitment to make this day mean something beyond symbolic gestures. Contrary to the idea that this day should be Indigenous led, Eagleclaw Thom notes, “This day as a holiday isn’t for the Indigenous peoples who have chosen to share their land with Canadians. It’s intended for settler Canadians, so they can recognize the pain and hurt they’ve caused.” But, neither the Canadian public nor the Canadian Government seem very willing to elevate the meaning of National Truth or Reconciliation Day beyond symbolism anyways.

This brings us back to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the fact that he chose to spend the day at the beach. The Prime Minister had been invited by several First Nations groups to attend various functions but declined. There has been much public and media outrage about this incident, but what is the Prime Minister guilty of that most Canadians aren’t? Why the outrage that the Prime Minister didn’t take the day more seriously when most Canadians weren’t willing to either? Of course, there are obvious answers. He’s not just anyone, he’s the Prime Minister; his government created the day in question, he prides himself on focusing so much on reconciliation, and recently won re-election planning to do more. Trudeau’s decision to go to the beach was not only politically inept, but represents a moral failure of leadership.

But had Trudeau attended a few functions that day instead of going to the beach, what might have happened? It would have made the news and the next day it would have faded from the public mind and the media’s consciousness. The main reason this topic is still in the public mind for most Canadians and media outlets is because Trudeau didn’t attend. They are outraged at the political optics when they should be outraged at the glacial pace of Trudeau’s government. His is a moral failing, to be sure, but Trudeau’s problem is representative of the larger moral failure to make National Truth and Reconciliation Day a more significant effort to affect social change.

Conservation and the Weight of History

photograph of statues in front of Philadelphia Art Museum

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


In September of 2020, the National Trust, an organization that preserves more than two hundred historical sites scattered across the U.K., published a lengthy report on the material legacy of British colonialism. The report specifically identifies ninety-three sites under its purview that were built, occupied, or otherwise connected to the slave owners, bureaucrats, merchants, and politicians who drove the Atlantic slave trade. The vestiges of imperialism, the report implies, can be found not just in bombastic public monuments, but in the quaint country estates and manicured parkland. Blood money taints everything from private art collections (which contain curiosities pillaged from India and Africa) to luxury furniture (often made from tropical hardwoods like mahogany, which were invariably harvested by slaves).

Hilary McGrady, the director of the Trust, notes in a blog post accompanying the report that

history can also be challenging and contentious. It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it. The National Trust is at its best when we capture this complexity – when we present facts and material evidence in ways that inspire curiosity, inquiry, learning and sharing.

History has certainly proved to be contentious; Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, accuses the Trust of bowing to Black Lives Matter, which he refers to as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues,” and laments “that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them.”

Others believe that the Trust isn’t going far enough. Their new programming acknowledges the impact of imperialism, but it isn’t clear whether or not they’ll take the next step of repatriating artifacts. In an article on the Trust for The New Yorker, Sam Knight interviews British historian William Dalrymple, who explains,

If you were to gather a group of National Trust supporters in a room and say to them, ‘We have some examples here of looted Jewish art treasures taken by the Nazis that have ended up in our properties. Should we hold on to them? Or should we give them back to their owners, who now live in L.A.?’ There would be a hundred-per-cent vote, of course. Most British people simply are not aware, or haven’t processed. . . that this is the same thing. That this is another conquered nation, whose art treasures now sit in British museums and in British country houses.

Most visitors to Trust sites find these historical parallels difficult to process, because, as Knight argues, the National Trust fulfills “at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure. The Trust aims for total inclusion. Its slogan is ‘For everyone, for ever’ . . . The Trust hates to disappoint people. It hates, like any great British institution, to cause offense.” But is the point of historical sites to provide comforting narratives that bolster patriotism, or to display the stark and often ugly realities of history, offensive as they may be? Many of us understand history as inert, a tranquil landscape that we gaze at appreciatively from a safe difference, but we come to that landscape with baggage in hand. All conservational bodies, not just the Trust, have to reckon with what the public wants from history, how they want it to act upon them (or, in some cases, not act upon them.)

Novelist Zadie Smith explored the weight of history in an essay for The London Review of Books. Smith argues that “Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions.” She’s speaking about monuments here, which are typically built with a particular narrative of the past in mind, but the way we maintain and present historical sites is another form of storytelling.

Smith, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, acknowledges the rampant erasure of slavery in the United States, but in the U.K., she sees not

erasure but of something closer to perfect oblivion. It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that ‘we’ ended it . . . The schools were silent; the streets deceptive. The streets were full of monuments to the glorious, imperial, wealthy past, and no explanation whatsoever of the roots and sources of that empire-building wealth.

Smith’s experience casts doubt on the ability of the Trust, or any single organization, to act as a definitive “custodian of collective memory” when so much of our history goes unacknowledged. Even the idea of total inclusion, which makes up half of the Trust’s slogan, feels like an attempt to smooth over division and inequalities. Smith sees a potential remedy to historical amnesia in artists like Kara Walker, whose work depicts the grotesque absurdities of slavery. Walker famously interrogated the serene public monuments of imperialism with her piece A Subtly, an enormous sculpture of a black woman made from white sugar (a commodity that drove much of the slave trade and helped beautify those ninety-three homes identified by the Trust).

One Walker drawing, enigmatically titled “What I want history to do to me,” elicits a polyphonous response from Smith. She reflects,

What might I want history to do to me? . . . I might ask it to urgently remind me why I’m moving forward, away from history. Or speak to me always of our intimate relation, of the ties that bind—and indelibly link—my history and me. I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not. . . . I might want history to show me that slaves and masters are bound at the hip. That they internalize each other. That we hate what we most desire. That we desire what we most hate. That we create oppositions—black white male female fat thin beautiful ugly virgin whore—in order to provide definition to ourselves by contrast. I might want history to convince me that although some identities are chosen, many others are forced. Or that no identities are chosen. Or that all identities are chosen . . . All of these things. None of them. All of them in an unholy mix of the true and the false.

When we approach the past, we come with many contradictory and often submerged desires, as Smith makes clear. British historical sites will continue to draw in tourists who want to snap photos of sprawling gardens and elegant drawing rooms. We can only hope that the National Trust’s admirable recognition of colonialism will start a new conversation about the many uses and misuses of history.

The Question of Genocide in Australian History

black and white photograph of aboriginal dwelling

In 1948, Australia was one of the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In 1998, three Indigenous activists attempted to bring a case against the country’s then Prime Minister John Howard and several other prominent politicians. The letter they dispatched to all Members of Parliament and Senators, as well as foreign diplomats and the UN read, in part:

“The Commonwealth of Australia is responsible for past, present and continuing genocide; attempt to commit genocide and complicity in genocide against the original peoples of the land claimed by the commonwealth of Australia to be under its sovereign administration.”

In 1949, the Genocide Convention Bill, written to approve Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide received bipartisan support in Parliament. But in the intervening years, despite being an enthusiastic signatory, Australia had not enacted it’s articles into law, and, though there were other findings against the appellants in the case against Howard et al, there was no corresponding law in Australia that dealt with the specific crime of genocide to be prosecuted in the first place. This legal situation has not been sufficiently remedied.

Meanwhile the national conversation about genocide; in Australian colonial history, in modern governmental policies and its remnants in current systems, is fraught.

Genocide is a profoundly confronting, disturbing subject; most people have very strong views about genocide and rightly associate it with events like the Nazi holocaust, Pol Pot’s campaign of slaughter in Cambodia, or the horrors of Rwanda.

While many are deeply disturbed by the suggestion that genocide could be invoked to characterize the Australian colonial history/experience of Australia’s First Nations, and many reject and repudiate the claim, others believe that the strongest moral and criminal terms are indeed warranted to condemn aspects of Australian colonization. And many have argued that there are at least three or four distinct, intended attempts or instances of genocide in historical and modern Australia.

The term ‘genocide’ was adopted after WWII as a way of comprehending in moral terms and prosecuting in legal terms the crimes of the Nazis against the Jewish people across Europe.

In the present UN Convention, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Hannah Arendt, following her coverage of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, defined genocide as ‘the desire that a certain distinct people disappear from the earth.’ Her definition tries to grapple with the moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire people from existence. Thus the concept of genocide is a unique moral category through which to apprehend the particular character of acts driven by the intention to destroy a people.

Genocide need not refer to the kinds of atrocities, or scale on which they occurred, of the Nazi Holocaust; there is much more to the concept than mass murder – the attempt to destroy a human group in whole or in part can take many forms.

When Australia supported the convention there was a notable, and seemingly unquestioned, absence of any second thoughts regarding colonial or modern Australian treatment of Aborigines. Indeed, forcible removal of Aboriginal children intensified in the twentieth century and was carried out until the 1970’s.

During the proceedings surrounding Australia’s adoption of the Genocide Convention Bill (to approve Australia’s ratification of the Convention) one Member of Parliament said, of Australia:

“That we detest all forms of genocide and desire to remove them arises from the fact that we are a moral people. The fact that we have a clean record allows us to take such an attitude regarding genocide.”

This seems, even given the prevailing views of Australian history, to have been an oddly blinkered view since Ralph Lemkin, the lawyer who first coined the term genocide to describe the Holocaust (just a few years before it was adopted by the UN), thought it had many historical precedents and he mentioned in particular the actions of the Tasmanian colonial government of the 1820s and 30s which resulted in the virtual extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines during that period of colonial expansionism.

During the frontier wars of the early years in all areas of colonial settlement and expansion through the continent of Australia First Nations people resisted and fought back against the British; but as those wars escalated in the 1800’s there were many instances of mass killings of Aborigines by white settlers.

In official literature and settler records (letters, diaries and the like) there are numerous characterizations of the colonial relation with the indigene as one of extermination. Some accounts endorse this and some find it regrettable. Massacres continued into the early twentieth century, after which a policy of forcible removal of children from Aboriginal parents into missions or non-Aboriginal households continued in various forms until into the 1970’s.

As per the UN Convention, genocide means “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such…” The inclusion of “intent” has been a major, and contentious, issue in how genocide is defined, and how it is identified as such.

Intent is problematic, of course, because it can be hard to prove – but also it is problematic in case there is thought to be a disparity between the intention (of the state, or significant actors) to bring about an outcome and the failure to prevent it or cease activities that result in it. Thus genocidal intent can be particularly difficult to isolate in some situations of war, and in the context of colonization.

Thinking about the effects of colonization on Australian Aborigines (and on Indigenous people the world over) raises the question of whether colonization itself is a genocidal project, and how the inclusion of ‘intent’ in the conventional and legal definition can be located in that question; notwithstanding those specific episodes in both colonial and modern Australia that can be pointedly identified as candidates for the crime of genocide.

Scholars and activists, as mentioned above, have long considered the events in Tasmania to be a relatively clear case of genocide. Following a systematic campaign of dispossession and murder, in 1833 the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines were removed by the government to Flinders’ Island. Even as, in historical records, there are ample expressions of regret, gestures of paternalism, and attempts to “provide them every comfort,” this was understood at the time to be the terminus of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. Flinders’ Island was essentially a place of death in whose confines the population declined so dramatically that demographic recovery was impossible.

On the fraught question of intention it is not altogether clear where its relationship to culpability stands. Does the intention have to be primary? Is it, for instance, to be considered genocide if the government of the day foresaw probable extinction of Aborigines as an effect of their policies yet carried on those policies unchanged? Is it genocide if, without (perhaps) the primary intention to destroy a human group, a government or other dominant social group carried out activities that hastened the extermination of the culture —  such as forcible dispossession of traditional and tribal lands, deprivation of resources depended upon for survival, massacre, incarceration, forcible re-education of children including loss of language and forced removal of children from Aboriginal families? Given this (incomplete) list of atrocities, it is really not a great stretch to identify the behavior of colonists and subsequent Australian governments as carrying out acts of genocide.

Lemkin argued that genocide is not just forced assimilation but a policy that by drastic methods “aimed at the rapid and complete disappearance of the cultural, moral and religious life of a group of human beings.” For Lemkin, genocide is present when a coordinated plan of actions is aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of an ethnic, cultural or national group. The conclusion that this applies at least to certain specific episodes in Australian colonial and modern history, if not the whole colonial project, seems inescapable.

The final article of the UN Convention on Genocide makes special mention of the practice of removing children. The case brought against the then Prime Minister in 1998 accused the Commonwealth of acts of genocide in the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal families which took place in the decades from 1010 to 1970. The victims of this policy are now referred to as ‘the Stolen Generations.’

This policy was designed to isolate Aboriginal children from their families and their cultures, and to destroy their relation to land and extinguish their traditional languages. The disastrous effects of this policy on the communities, families, culture, and individual lives of Aboriginal people throughout the nation continues to cause deep cultural trauma and affect health and social outcomes for Aboriginal people. It remains a deep wound in the national psyche for the whole country.

That genocide can take different forms does not render mass murder of Jews in gas chambers equivalent, in one sense, with forced removal of children from their parents – these things are clearly not morally equivalent in every way; nevertheless both belong to the moral category of genocide, and both have what Australian philosopher Rai Gaita has called “the inexpungible moral dimensions” of genocide, whatever the forms it takes or actions that entail it.

Even in the absence of a specific law in Australia, which makes prosecution of cases of genocide virtually impossible, understanding the necessity of the concept of genocide as a category to name the particular moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire human group and their particular, unique instantiation of humanity, is essential. This is true even though thinking about Australian history through that moral lens is extremely painful. As it is not clear that Australia can heal these wounds.

Healing, in the sense of making it better, may not be possible, but we have to show up to the conversation prepared to hear and tell the truth about our history, with the courage to acknowledge the role of genocide in that history.

The Djap Wurrung Trees, Hermeneutical Injustice, and Australia’s First Nations People

photograph of road construction beginning with trees in distance

As I write this, a tense standoff between authorities and the traditional owners of a sacred Aboriginal women’s site is coming to a head in the state of Victoria, in southeastern Australia. The state government is preparing to bulldoze an area containing more than 260 large eucalyptus trees, some of which are as old as 800 years, that belong to an area sacred to the women of the Djap Wurrung nation: the Indigenous people and traditional owners of this area in western Victoria.

The proposed destruction of the site, to make way for an extension of a stretch of highway that links the two state capitals Melbourne and Adelaide, has led to a protracted battle between traditional owners and authorities, and some of the protesters have been there for over a year. Tent embassy spokeswoman Amanda Mohamet said: “We are the traditional custodians of this part of country, and we have a cultural obligation to be here.” The government insists it has sought and gained permission from traditional owners, but the protesters reject this, arguing that authorities have instead confected a ‘manufactured consent’.

The official reason for this extension is safety; authorities argue that this is necessary after 11 deaths since the beginning of 2013 on the stretch of road due to be upgraded. Protesters have now issued a red alert as fencing and machinery are being moved in. This situation is deeply distressing to the Djap Wurrung people, to the wider Indigenous community and to all Australians who stand in solidarity with them. It must be understood as a continuation and entrenchment of dispossession and colonial violence done to Australia’s First Nations people at the hands of British and European settlers. The history of the colonization, or invasion, of Australia is a history of violence to Aboriginal people and theft of the land to which their physical, ancestral, and spiritual lives are inseparably connected.

When the British colonizers arrived in Australia, a little over two hundred years ago, they encountered a land that had been peopled by its original occupants for over 60,000 years. Just pause for a moment on that number – on that length, and depth of time. The settlers encountered an ancient and complex culture formed from hundreds of different Nations, speaking hundreds of different languages; all with rich and deep religious, totemic, cultural, and ancestral connections to the land – to ‘country’. But, in another way, the settlers did not ‘encounter’ that culture at all. They saw Aboriginal people but they did not ‘see’ them. As Nayuka Gorrie writes of the Djap Wurrung efforts to save their sacred ground:

“The inability to see these sites as worthy of being protected or that they are significant is fundamentally racist. It is white selectivity that deems sacred trees unworthy of protection. This white selectivity spans across all elements of our life.”

This situation highlights an especially deep and entrenched kind of epistemic, hermeneutical injustice. The term ‘epistemic’ refers to knowledge, and the term ‘hermeneutic’ refers to interpretation. Miranda Fricker coined the term ‘epistemic injustice‘ and her original work recognized hermeneutical injustice as one type of epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when a person or group of people are wronged specifically in their capacity as knower(s); when they are disadvantaged by being prevented from sharing or accessing knowledge.

Epistemic injustice affects those who are sidelined by others in positions of greater social power – when members of non-dominant groups are prevented from participating in meaning making of ‘shared concepts’. Those experiencing epistemic injustice may not be believed, may not be understood, or their knowledge and experience may be discounted or ignored.

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when an individual or group encounters a blind spot in how their experiences or concepts are understood. This can happen in situations where the individual or group is relegated to a position of relative social powerlessness, from which their experience is not recognized by, or reflected in, the collective conceptual vocabulary of the dominant social group.

Hermeneutical injustice is preceded by hermeneutical marginalization. Non-dominant groups are hermeneutically marginalized when they aren’t able to participate fully in the process of meaning making, so that the dominant group’s shared concepts fail to recognize the experiences of those marginalized groups. This happens when those in power are allowed to define the experience or control the conceptual apparatus. Conceptual gaps then open up in the social fabric, where a marginalized group can’t communicate to the dominant group, and where their experience, ways of understanding it and attempts to communicate it, are not acknowledged. The process whereby a group is hermeneutically marginalized is a spiral in which their communication is frustrated as a result of their marginalization, and then the frustrated communication further entrenches their marginalization.

Many levels of epistemic injustice are, in a multitude of ways, central to the experience of Australia’s First Nations people and hermeneutical marginalization is one of the central features of the colonial mindset; hermeneutical injustice is present at the very roots of colonial attitudes to Aboriginal people’s experiences – historically and contemporarily.

Aboriginal people’s deep cultural knowledge of the land did not register in the European consciousness. That is no mere accident of cultural difference. It has to be understood, historically, as embedded in the intentions with which the European settlers arrived on the continent. They came to take ownership of the land, to acquire and use it for the purpose of their own prosperity, and that intention mediated all their interactions with Aboriginal people.

When the first settlers arrived they saw a vast country ripe for the taking. Their determination to own and exploit the land blinded them to the truth about the Aboriginal people’s relation to the land. The settlers refused to acknowledge, refused even to see, the deep and ancient knowledge structures of the Indigenous cultures. They had no register in which Aboriginal knowledge of the land could be understood.

Consider for instance the type of knowledge known as the Songline, or dreaming track. Songlines are complex maps that record creation stories and histories that navigate vast terrain and map story onto country. They are recorded in songs, stories, ceremonial dance, and artworks. They take in landscape, its features, things people need to know (like where to find water or other local plant or hunting knowledge), as well as history and ancestry, things related to ceremony and other sacred knowledge. This knowledge is not ‘about’ the landscape, it is embedded in it, it is inseparable from it – and so destruction of country is destruction of knowledge. It is a kind of epistemic violence, which is related to, leads to, and sustains actual physical violence.

Fricker discussed the ‘virtue of hermeneutical justice’ whereby sensitivity to the gap in hermeneutical resources might be cultivated to prevent hermeneutical injustices. In Australia that means listening to Aboriginal people’s account of their experience, and learning from them what they know about the vast landscape of the continent.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, in his recent book Dark Emu, has seriously challenged the view, upon which Australian history is based, that the first Australians lived a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. His research uses records from the settlers such as letters and diaries reveals a much more complicated Aboriginal economy based on land care, manipulation of landscape by building of dams and wells, planting, irrigating, harvesting, and food storage.

Many of the documents from which this picture of Aboriginal knowledge emerges also reveal the hermeneutical marginalization that Australian history rests on, because the settler accounts are epistemically blind to Aboriginal knowledge about the land, and therefore to the nature and depth of their cultural relationship to it. Many of these documents reveal details of Aboriginal land use while at the same time, perversely, dismissing or underplaying it.

So we could see, in the fight to save the Djap Wurrung trees in western Victoria, an opportunity for redress, and to promote epistemic justice, rather than a clash of interests between traditional owners and road safety concerns.

As Djap Wurrung man Nayuka Gorrie points out,

“The official line given by the Major Roads Project Authority is safety. This framing can be understood as a way to undermine land defenders and position us as against the interests of the rest of the population.”

To treat the issue as though the claims of safety were in some way ‘equivalent’ to, and therefore can be balanced against, sacred relation to country is a form of epistemic injustice through equivocation. The ‘road safety’ defense is a form of hermeneutical marginalization in the way it uses well-healed concepts (like “safety”) that are unmistakably tied to the goals and interests of the dominant group. These concepts effectively erase the very different language of Aboriginal people in their attempts to convey their physical, cultural, and spiritual connection to country. As Sissy Austin explains:

“This is a landscape that forms the basis of Djab Wurrung identity – from the roots of the trees that are more than 800 years old, the rolling hills, the kangaroos, eagles and black cockatoos, to the stories of the stars, the moon and the sun. You cannot have one element of country without the other.”

Before European settlement Aboriginal Australians were astronomers, they had complex maps of the stars represented in constellations which they recorded in rock paintings. They had highly developed systems of agriculture, oral literary traditions, and fine art – yet the settlers’ concepts of ‘civilization’ did not recognize them as civilized. That hermeneutical marginalization and the injustice it perpetuates continues as authorities ignore the pleas of the Djap Wurrung for the preservation of their sacred country.

Celebrating Invasion Day: Australia’s History War

Photo of the Sydney Harbor overlooking the Opera House and an Australian flag flying in the sky from a plane

On January 26 each year Australia celebrates its national holiday ‘Australia Day’ with official events including citizenship ceremonies and firework displays, as well as gatherings, barbecues and many other quintessentially Australian activities. But over the past several years, a debate has raged about whether it is appropriate to hold celebrations on that particular date, given its meaning for Australia’s Indigenous population (known also as Aborigines or First Nations People [1]), many of whom commemorate that particular date as Invasion Day.   

It was on January 26, 1788, that Captain Arthur Philip led the First Fleet into Sydney Cove, planting the British flag, and claiming the territory for the British Empire. The colonization of Australia meant severe degradation of traditional cultures which stretch back into prehistory.  The story of white, European settlement is, for First Nations people, a story marked — often dominated — by horrors of dispossession, massacre and attempted cultural genocide.

Inseparable from the ethical issues at stake in this debate — Aboriginal rights, justice and reconciliation — are broader philosophical issues about truth raised by vying interpretations of history. Disagreements about how the history of white settlement should be understood, and about how current generations of white Australians should respond, have become increasingly divisive over the past two decades, fuelled by the so called ‘history wars.’

At the time of European settlement, Australia had been inhabited by its indigenous occupants for over 60,000 years. That makes Aboriginal culture (though it is by no means homogenous) by far the oldest surviving, continual civilisation in the history of the world. The peoples of the First Nations made up over 600 individual Nations, with many different languages and cultural characteristics and customs.

Australia was colonized under the auspices of the doctrine of “Terra Nullius” (no-one’s land). The belief that the land did not belong to its Indigenous inhabitants rested on ignorance about the depth of the relationship of Aborigines to the land. To the European settlers, it justified their policy of driving Aboriginal people off lands in which they lived, hunted and fished, and it led also to many massacres of those who tried to resist. In the state of Tasmania, local Indigenous people were all but wiped out. In the state of Queensland, at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous people lost their lives defending their country in the frontier wars of the 1800s.

More recently, from the beginning of the twentieth century until roughly the 1960s, a government policy was in operation to remove Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children from their Indigenous parents. The (so-called) Stolen Generation were taken and sent to homes or foster care, and in many cases were subject to abuse and neglect. A 700-page report entitled Bringing Them Home, the result of a national enquiry into the Stolen Children, was tabled in Federal Parliament in 1997. It detailed story after harrowing story of families torn apart and lives ruined by the grief and suffering visited on the victims of this state-enforced policy.

Currently, the situation for many Aboriginal people remains marked by disadvantage. For example, as of the 2016 census, First Nations People represented 3.3 percent of the total Australian population yet account for more than 28 percent of Australia’s prison population. Rates of youth suicide, violence, and substance abuse remain far higher for many Indigenous communities than for the population at large.

In the context of these egregious past and ongoing current injustices, many Indigenous people have asked the rest of the community to change the date of the national holiday celebrations. Many Aboriginal people feel both that they would like to be included in national celebrations, and simultaneously cannot feel included because of what the date means to them. They need the broader Australian community to hear their need for recognition of the wrongs they, as a people, have suffered. Indigenous television presenter, Brooke Boney said,

“This is the best country in the world… But I can’t separate the 26th of January from the fact that my brothers are more likely to go to jail than school, or that my little sisters and my mum are more likely to be beaten and raped than anyone else’s sisters or mum,” she said. “And that started from that day. For me, it’s a difficult day and I don’t want to celebrate it.”

A great many non-Indigenous people fully support Australia’s First Nations people in their call for a national holiday and celebration to be held on a date not synonymous with the pain and suffering of their people. Yet the call to change the date has encountered fierce ideological resistance from other sections of the community.  Keeping Australia Day on January 26 remains the official policy of both major political parties.

In an interview last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood that some who opposed celebrating a national holiday on January 26 did so out of respect for Aboriginal people, but said refusing to celebrate the day was “silly.” He recently wrote in a Facebook post: “Indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger.”

There is a prevalent view that even though grave injustice was done to Aboriginal people in the past, colonization has also brought great benefit, and since contemporary Australians are not the perpetrators of historical wrongs, they need not, indeed should not, feel guilt or shame.

Many, especially on the socially conservative side in the history wars, argue that focusing on the darkest elements in Australian history eclipses the nation’s achievements, fosters disunity rather than togetherness and threatens to drown national pride in national sorrow. Many also feel confronted by the suggestion that they could or should feel shame for the past actions of others.

Yet the Prime Minister’s statement that “indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger” appears not only to reject the so-called ‘black armband’ view of Australian history in unequivocal terms, but to seriously underestimate either the injustices done to Aborigines, or the depth of their effects. Racism of this kind that was behind the dispossession based on Terra Nullis and the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children is constituted by a very deep-seated failure of white European colonizers to acknowledge the full humanity of their Indigenous victims.

To illustrate this failure, Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita emphasizes a couple of key moments. At the time of forced removals of Aboriginal children, James Isdell, a minister for protection of Aborigines in the Western Australian government, said that “no matter how frantic an Aboriginal mother’s momentary grief was at the time, they soon forget their offspring.” [2]

But in 1992, a high court ruling (The Mabo decision), overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius doctrine. That judgement acknowledged that Aboriginal People’s spiritual relationships to the land are deeper than can be conveyed by the notion of ownership. [3] Then, given the definition of genocide decided by the 1948 Genocide Convention, The Stolen Generation’s Bringing Them Home report demonstrates that “The policy of forcible removal of children from Indigenous Australians to other groups for the purpose of raising them separate from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled genocidal.” [4]

These pernicious government policies represent a denial of the full humanity of Aboriginal people – their connection to their land, their love for their children. The willingness of other Australians to dismiss the feelings of hurt endured by Indigenous Australians by refusing to change the date of national celebration only compounds that injustice. As the Mayor of Darebin Council in Melbourne, Susan Rennie, told ABC Radio: “the people for whom the celebration is most hurtful should be listened to… we have consistently heard from Aboriginal / First Nations people in our community that the date is hurtful and causes distress… why wouldn’t we respond to that and think about changing the date.”

A full conception of justice would need to acknowledge what Indigenous people are saying and what they need in order for reconciliation to occur. This recognition is not merely limited to acknowledging past wrongs but perceiving ongoing injustice. That does not mean that this generation of non-Indigenous Australians, for whom there is likely to be no direct connection to those historical wrongs, should feel guilt, though some doubtless do. But it does seem to entail that a full moral appreciation of the injustices suffered include an appropriate sense of shame.

So what should a country be celebrating with a national holiday such as this? It is natural, and it is right, it seems to me, to feel a sense of pride in one’s nation. But, that sense of pride should be founded on a sufficiently deep conceptual sense of what pride is, or should be, if national pride is not going to collapse into nationalism and jingoism. To take full moral possession of the dark aspects of a nation’s history is not anti-patriotic but authentically patriotic. True patriotism should be genuine love of one’s country, and not a hollow, jingoistic nationalism of the sort which leads someone to confuse acknowledging the shame many Australians feel with “indulgent self-loathing.”

 

Notes

[1] First Nations is plural because there were thousands of tribes many with their own language and cultural traditions inhabiting Australia prior to colonization.  

[2] Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1999, p57. My analysis here draws especially on several chapters that pertain to issues of Aboriginal dispossession and genocide in his book A Common Humanity.

[3] Gaita, 1999, 74.

[4] Gaita, 1999, 116; https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf 234-239

3D Scans, Archaeological Sites, and “Digital Colonialism”

Photo of the Palmyra ruins in Syria

During the height of its power, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed and looted numerous cultural heritage sites under its control. In January 2017, it was reported that ISIS had destroyed two ancient structures in Palmyra. Cultural heritage sites are also prone to natural disasters. An earthquake that hit an ancient city in Myanmar in 2016 damaged numerous temples located there.

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The Ethics of Short-Term Medical Missions

Photo of a doctor giving an eye exam to a child.

According to NPR, doctors and medical students in the United States are increasingly seeking out programs that enable them to spend a limited amount of time (from weeks to months) in developing countries providing free medical care. This sounds like an unmitigated good thing, given the amount of need for medical resources in many parts of the world and the opportunity to save and improve lives that this represents. However, as has been a common refrain in discussions concerning foreign aid generally, helping residents of poorer countries can have numerous unintended consequences, and short-term medical missions are not exempt from this insight. The NPR article provides several examples of these unintended negative consequences:

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Considering Avenues for Colonial Repatriation

Photo of old colonial fort with palm tree and grass

Over the past century, many arguments have surfaced in reference to Western nations giving reparations for their atrocities during the colonial period. Proponents of repatriation center their arguments around the numerical value of the people that were lost, natural resources given up, and artifacts stolen from them. On the other hand, many of the benefactors of colonialism claim that those countries that were colonized benefitted from this process and gave them an upper hand in an increasingly industrialized world. The claims of the colonialist beg us to investigate whether they are well-founded and true, for accepting them full-heartedly distorts the reality of the situation. Continue reading “Considering Avenues for Colonial Repatriation”

Should the United States Invade Venezuela?

A landscape image of Caracas, Venezuela

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has recently written a column claiming Venezuela is approaching D-Day: options are running out in the solution of the South American country’s crisis, and the only remaining solution, according to him, is the participation of a coalition of regional forces. Hausmann is quite explicit arguing that such a coalition should be led by the US.

Hausmann does not use these phrases in his article, but he is clearly thinking of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Both concepts are now common parlance in security studies and international law, yet they give rise to heated debates.

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The Ethics of Secession

A photo of a man holding a Catalan independence flag.

Secession has been a hot topic in 2017. At least two important plebiscites have been celebrated: Kurdistan and Catalonia. Predictably, both the governments of Iraq and Spain have strongly condemned them as illegal, respectively. Both governments are right: the laws of both Iraq and Spain do not allow for secession in the terms that the plebiscites propose it. But, then again, basically no country in the world (Ethiopia and Canada being notable exceptions) accepts the legality of secession. Yet, throughout history, secessions have happened multiple times. Technically, almost all of them have been illegal. Morally, some of them have been celebrated, some not. What, then, is the criterion to judge the morality of secession? What makes George Washington a hero, but Jefferson Davis a villain (if at all)?

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Hey Hey, Ho Ho: Does Western Civ Have to Go?

Is colonialism a bad thing? It is fashionable to think so, and with good reason. Genocide, racism, slavery, depredation, epidemics, cultural inferiority complexes, etc., are all traceable to Europe’s colonial expansion beginning in the 16th Century. It would be naïve to think it is over, even if the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories is rather short. Colonialism persists. Whether it is America invading Iraq to get its oil, or Nike setting up sweatshops in Bangladesh, colonialism is alive and kicking, and it continues to cause great damage to people of color.

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The Imperialism of Animal Crossing

When I first popped the cartridge for Animal Crossing: New Leaf into my Nintendo 3DS, I had no idea I would be playing a game about imperialism. I had played iterations of the cute “life simulator,” complete with its talking animal villagers and customizable houses, since it first came to the United States on the Gamecube in 2001. The colorful art style and simplistic premise of New Leaf checked all the right nostalgia boxes, and I was excited to see what the latest iteration in the series had to offer. Considering imperialistic narratives was hardly the priority.

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Colonialism and the Western Museum

Inseparable from the modern museum is an examination of how the forces of globalization affect it. As audiences of these museums seek increasingly globalized experiences, so too have the collections of museums diversified with collections from around the world. Impressive as they may be, though, such collections bring with them a number of ethical issues. And in the time of ISIS and antiquity black markets, foremost among them is just how such antiquities arrived in the museum’s hallowed halls in the first place.

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