The settler as ignorant: Anna Cook, Unable to Hear: Settler Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, PhD Dissertation, University of Oregon, 2019


Abstract: My dissertation provides an epistemic evaluation of settler colonialism in terms of settlers’ disavowal of past and ongoing settler colonial violence. I seek to explain how settlers can fail to hear Indigenous testimonies in ways that disrupt structural inequality and challenge settler colonial legitimacy. This theoretical consideration of settler ignorance reveals how the elimination of Indigenous peoples requires the delegitimatization of Indigenous peoples as knowers. This insight is crucial in evaluating contemporary governmental apologies and truth commissions aimed at reconciliation. In particular, I focus on the epistemic assumptions that do not challenge what I call ‘settler ignorance’ and so do not transform settler nation-myths that disavow past and present settler colonialism. My epistemic evaluation of settler colonialism demonstrates how the exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the realm of reason, what I call their ‘epistemic elimination,’ is not accidental, but integral to the settler colonial project of eliminating Indigenous presence. Using this characterization of settler ignorance, I evaluate the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in terms of its ability to accomplish its mandate of “establishing and maintaining respectful relationships” between Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians. I conclude that the TRC fails on its own terms because it does not challenge epistemic assumptions that prevent testimonies of residential school survivors to be heard as expressions of Indigenous refusal of settler authority. Without challenging these epistemic assumptions, testimonies cannot disrupt structural settler ignorance and so, cannot lead to meaningful reconciliation. Meaningful reconciliation requires of settlers a reparative transformation of epistemic assumptions that work to maintain a structural ignorance of past and ongoing settler colonial violence. The goal of what I call ‘reparative knowing’ is both a personal one and a critical intervention into how settlers can become epistemically responsible agents. In the context of ongoing settler colonial violence, reparative knowing involves a troubling of settler common sense, and so, a disruption of structural settler ignorance. Without such an understanding of settler ignorance and reparative knowing, an investigation into the aims and transformations of settler colonialism would remain incomplete.

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