- Commissions as Narratives: A Review Essay
It goes without saying that as anthropologists we are interested in the study of human subjects and their interactions with each other. We are concerned with the mechanisms through which culture becomes a means of interpreting events for individuals and for communities; how local narratives compete with metanarratives; and how the narrative form can be used to create barriers or expand relationship. Narrative is an obvious focal point for our work because it acts as a gateway for individuals and communities to explain how they experience events, often without us having to experience the event ourselves. Two works that exemplify the use of narrative as a tool within anthropology are Edward J. Hedican’s Ipperwash: The Tragic Failure of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy and Ronal Niezen’s Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools.
Hedican and Niezen have written about two different inquiries into the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and two different levels of government, the Ipperwash Inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Hedican has focused on a single event in which Dudley George was killed. Niezen’s focus was, at the time of his writing, the ongoing TRC. Hedican’s work does not shy away from dealing with the role of racism in the Province of Ontario and its institutions. He allows us to consider how the fiduciary responsibility of the Crown can be problematically unfulfilled because of racism. Hedican spends the first third of the book discussing Aboriginal policy and rights in Canada, focusing on historical and legal developments before exploring the Ipperwash Inquiry and the failure of Canada’s Aboriginal policy.
Niezen’s work is a reflection on the relationship between Aboriginal people, the Crown, the churches that ran the schools and the symbolic construction of a particular version of that relationship. Niezen’s analysis of how public performance of trauma can act to transfer blame from one actor (the Crown) to another (the Church) is interesting and important. He does this by his focus on the role of indignation as a response to the abuse of children at the hands of those whose care they were in (Niezen 2013:16-17). In this way, actors narrate the events they experienced and the audience converts the narrating actor into archetype characters within the structure imposed by the scope of the inquiry. The end result is a powerful force that the Crown uses to shape the direction of the inquiry’s narrative.
Common ground can be found in these two books not by considering the inquiry as a hearing, which ends a series of events, but by focusing on the potential effects of the inquiry on ongoing relationships. Hedican reminds his readers that these inquiries are expensive and, taking a “cynical view,” do nothing but buy a government more time and perhaps deflect attention away from real problems (Hedican 2013:203). His point is important. Certainly the Ipperwash Inquiry did not make the land claims process more efficient. The Provincial Crown has little authority to make such changes. In addition, as is evident by a lack of real changes, racism continues to be a problem in Canada. The TRC serves the role of collecting important personal narratives, but the focus on trauma circumscribes the finished product. In addition, the narrowed scope of the inquiry limits the legitimacy of anyone coming forward with a claim who did not attend a residential school as defined by the commission.
However, I wish to focus on the construction of narratives, including Hedican’s and Niezen’s, as it relates to how metanarratives continue to be created about Aboriginal peoples. Two elements of narrative worth considering here are the roles of actors and how actors become characters. The concept of an actor is definable as an agent who acts (Bal 1997:5). That is to say, an actor is any person or thing...