Reconciliation is expensive: Jennifer Henderson, ‘Residential Schools and Opinion-Making in the Era of Traumatized Subjects and Taxpayer-Citizens’, Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 49, 1, 2015, pp. 5-43


Abstract: This essay tracks the media-led production of a Canadian common sense about residential schools in the decade leading up to the 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Newspaper commentary on residential schools lawsuits accentuated the already constrained understanding of the agency, duration, and effects of the schools’ harm within private law. Civil litigation was a strategy for seeking the accountability of churches and government; however, arguments in the mainstream media repeatedly asserted that the wrong of residential schooling was limited to specific, individual crimes of sexual and physical assault. These arguments reinforced the parameters imposed by tort law. The newspaper commentaries cultivated a common sense about residential schools that drew on the discourse of trauma and a neo-liberal discourse delegitimizing claims on state resources. Trauma’s biographical scale and focus on the catastrophic event reinforced the emphasis on specific crimes. The neo-liberal taxpayer-citizen could empathize with the individual traumatized by violence, whilst dismissing broader claims about residential schooling. In newspaper commentary, then, residential schools became discursively dis-embedded from the broader framework of colonial policy. The claim of a collective experience of cultural loss was key in the struggle to resituate the schools within this framework; however, the recognition ultimately won may bear the imprint of a common sense that constrained what the recovery of culture could mean.

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