Truth and Reconciliation – Where Do Historians Fit?

July 13, 2016

Written by guest blogger, James Carson

I recently attended my son’s high school graduation. At the end of the emcee’s recognition of territory the audience stood and erupted in a raucous ovation. There were even whoops, hoots, and hollers, a joy in something right was being done. Would this have happened ten or twenty years ago? No. Two? Probably not. One? I’m not sure.

The recent Liberal victory and the promulgation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report have pivoted Canada away from the dreary Indian Act and opened the possibility of a “sunny” way forward. Symbolic gestures and statements—like at the graduation ceremony or in Kingston’s recent naming of a school after Molly Brant– matter because they re-frame public mores and provide the cues that young citizens will mind. More substantive issues like healthcare, water, employment, and governmental relationships, meanwhile, remain complicated and only time will tell if new attitudes can work new wonders.

Where do historians fit in all of this?

For years scholars have deployed critical insights and measured reflections against powerful national narratives of discovery, of expansion, and of state, and we have achieved much. But there is something about the moment in which we now find ourselves that seems to demand more. I think it is asking us to build something new too.

My recent article on re imagining the traditional story of the martyrdom of Jean de Brébeuf seeks to chart one such way forward, in step with others, to ground the study of the past in indigenous languages, knowledges, and imperatives–to the best of my abilities, limited as they may be. It is a scholarship of hope and implication more so than of objectivity and conclusion, and it enacts an epistemological shift away from one set of foundational assumptions towards other ones, elusive ones, vital ones. As this new historiographical strand takes firmer and sharper shape over time, we would do well to appreciate it self-consciously, to acknowledge its moment and its incipient potential–all while accepting that the historical practice of reconciliation will no doubt proceed in fits and starts. Some attempts will be artfully elegant. Others more tentative and speculative. Some even fumbly.

Creating something new, though, is always difficult. We will need to bear in mind the need to balance a rigorous critical eye with a forgiving generosity. If it is to remain true to its moment and to its intent, historiographical reconciliation will be driven by a spirit of open-ended inquiry that is less preoccupied with the valorization of accuracy and far more interested in the elucidation of certain credible truths.

James Caron’s article, “Brébeuf Was Never Martyred: Reimagining the Life and Death of Canada’s First Saint,” has been published in the Canadian Historical Review Volume 97, Issue 2 2016. Read it today at CHR Online – or on Project MUSE –

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