(Image Credit: Flickr account ‘Richard North’; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence.)
It is emblematic of all Indigenous issues that PM Trudeau’s claim of having handed over all documents to the TRUTH & Reconciliation commission is mired in controversy over whether that claim represents the TRUTH.
COMING IN WAVES
Just as it appeared that the controversy around Prime Minister Trudeau’s absence (or surfing vacation, depending on your political stripe) on the inaugural National Day of Truth & Reconciliation was being laid to rest, the very event that was meant to lay it to rest has birthed another controversy. And as before, opinions on it are divided along partisan lines.
As is also to be expected, it isn’t quite clear what the facts of the case are.
The kerfuffle was kicked up by Global News journalist Neetu Garcha, who tweeted that contrary to the claim by PM Trudeau (when he appeared at the event held by the Tk’emlups Te Secwepemc) that the federal government had handed over all documents relating to Residential Schools to the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation (NCTR), that was not the case. She cited NCTR as saying that the claim was ‘not accurate’, and that they do not have all the records.
Ms. Garcha followed this up with another tweet, quoting the PM’s press secretary as saying that “We have provided over 4M+ documents to the (NCTR), To the best of our knowledge, all documents were provided. If that’s not the case, we will do everything we can in … (making) sure the documents are provided” (emphasis added). This tidbit of information leaves us guessing as to whether the said ‘4M+’ amounts to 100% of the documents, or lower.
As I followed this debate on Twitter, I came across claims that some of the documents would be in the possession of provincial governments, and yet more with the Church (mainly the Catholic Church). Therefore, it was quite possible for the federal government to hand over all the documents in its possession, and for the NCTR to still be short of receiving all the pertinent documents.
Later, National Post picked up on the story, but it is based merely on the initial reporting by Ms. Garcha, so there is no additional light thrown on the confusion.
In a nutshell, where the truth in the matter lies depends on the definition of ‘all’. This may remind some people of President Bill Clinton’s infamous line “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But from my standpoint, this type of circumstance is much older; the famous 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib once wrote this couplet:
Har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ki tu kya hai
Tumhi kaho ki yeh andaaz-e-guftagu kya hai
(At every turn, you ask the meaning of ‘you’. Now you tell me, what is with this way of conversing?)
Going beyond parsing language, it appears to me that the very structure that has been put in place to arrive at the ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ has a foundational crack – there isn’t any entity tasked with ensuring that the various parties that are responsible for providing their documents to NCTR actually do so. Is this crucial defect inadvertent, or by design?
It doesn’t help in this matter that the question(s) about the completeness of documents died a quick death, having been overtaken by other, ‘more important’ issues, such as the announcement of a new federal cabinet. I am putting that qualifier in quotes here, because for the Indigenous people and many other Canadians, it is (I think) offensive that the questions have been pushed out of the public sphere altogether. Whether consciously or otherwise, our media chose to let the matter fade away.
But Reconciliation is not going to fade away as an issue. Are we prone to discussing this (and several other weighty issues) only in a sporadic manner? My answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Here is why I think that unsatisfactory state of affairs exists:
In a recent discussion, I made an off-hand remark that our media operates on the basis of the political calendar. So they talk about / report on certain things at certain times only. We can compare this behaviour to that of retail stores, where depending on the season, certain kinds of merchandise appear on and then disappear from the shelves. However, some issues are privileged enough to find coverage & commentary all year round, such as climate change and systemic racism. Therefore, the natural question is, what accounts for the difference in treatment accorded to various issues?
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY
In one of his essays, author C. Northcote Parkinson has described, in his trademark humorous manner, how humans naturally avoid tackling difficult issues, and devote an exaggerated amount of time to issues where they feel comfortable because they have a lot to say on them. The crux of his essay is that there is hierarchy of difficulty associated with different topics, and above a certain threshold, people avoid discussing a topic. He called this cut-off level as ‘the point of diminishing interest’ and the overall tendency as ‘the law of triviality’.
If this law is in operation in relation to the documents issue, what causes the discomfort (especially among the media)? Here are the theoretical possibilities as I see them:
- They don’t think that Indigenous issues should be prioritized. Having one such issue acquire prominence made them uneasy, so they wanted to move on to other things.
- Talking meaningfully about Reconciliation is beyond their ability.
- Fact-finding is boring. Opining is sexy and also feeds their sense of self-importance.
- The decision as to which topic to cover / write about depends on their assessment of what the people would like to read / hear about. This is sometimes phrased uncharitably as ‘chasing clicks’.
There may, of course, be other possibilities. But whatever caused them to drop the documents issue, the fact remains that not pursuing it does not serve the Canadian society. If Reconciliation is truly our goal, then we are remiss in our duty to ourselves when we shy away from discussing the uncomfortable parts.
Since all the major players in the situation operate on a reactive mode (i.e. the politicians, the media and a large proportion of the people), we don’t discuss issues that merit discussions, but rather those that are ‘the flavour of the week’. Even within that limitation, we choose topics to discuss based on how the law of triviality applies to us.
As I have explored in detail in an earlier article ‘Structural Dysfunction’, even when we do discuss important issues, the manner in which Canadian society is organized for discussions pretty much ensures that there is no concrete outcome for decades. As if that were not bad enough, we have instances where we abandon discussion altogether, such as the one of the documents that the NCTR says that it doesn’t have.
Given the rhythmic nature of our political calendar, at some point, the issue of documents will resurface, and we will have yet another round of claims and counterclaims. However, since no digging is done in the interim to find out the exact situation, that round will be as infructuous as the first one. Trying to find out the truth about any public policy matter is Canada is like the proverbial search for the centre of an onion – after we have peeled away all the layers, nothing remains; all that we have to show for our efforts is tears. It seems as if we are more interested in having disputes than we are in arriving at an agreement as to the concrete steps to be taken.
Given these ground realities, I consider it likely that some decades hence, we will have another centre (we can call it NCTR 2.0 for the time being) created to find out if all the documents had indeed been handed over to NCTR 1.0. Needless to say, the original objective behind establishing NCTR 1.0 will not have been achieved; the very reason why we will need NCTR 2.0 will have ensured that. The silver lining, if one is inclined to see things that way, would be that our politicians will be able to claim to be doing something about the Indigenous people. Criticism or applause for these claims will fall along partisan lines. I can only make a guess here, but I consider it likely that the main bone of contention will be as regards who caused the confusion about the definition of ‘all’.