Agonistic Reconciliation: Witnessing and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

  • Author / Creator
    Bohle, Darren M
  • This study examines the concept of agonistic reconciliation in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a commission established to address the settler colonial legacy of residential schools which generations of indigenous children were forced to attend. Agonistic democratic theory asserts that contest, contingency, and plurality are ineradicable features of democracy, and that acknowledging the permanence of deep differences might permit antagonistic conflicts to be transformed into agonistic rivalries. Rejecting the presumption that reconciled democracies require a common history or recuperated unity which is beyond political challenge, agonistic and radical democratic theorists have instead styled reconciliation as an opportunity to disclose the permanency of contest. But reconciliation presents agonistic theory with a difficult case. The prospect of perpetual contest seems endangered both by the antagonistic divisions which truth commissions make public, and by the ultimate harmony which reconciling seems to entail. This difficulty is exacerbated by the possibility that agonistic theory posits public space as a prerequisite for democratic contest. Agonistic theories face a dilemma, to the extent that they suggest contest transpires within public spaces of appearance such as the forums proffered by truth commissions: the apparent precondition of public space for contest begs the question of whether agonistic rivalries also require prior common ground for their instantiation, even as revelations of historical injustices unsettle presumptions of shared normative vocabularies or consensual procedures for dialogue. This dissertation takes up the problem of the public space required for democratic disagreement by highlighting disclosure and witnessing as techniques used by the truth commission in Canada to publicly display past injuries and plural histories. Disclosure and witnessing also serve as theoretical devices to explicate the paradoxical proposition that agonistic reconciliation both presumes and produces the public forum, immanent respect, or shared normative vocabulary required for ongoing contest about the histories and identities of a political community such as Canada. Through the work of Hannah Arendt, Chantal Mouffe, James Tully, Aletta Norval, Andrew Schaap, and Alexander Hirsch, this study explores the argument that truth commissions might transform relationships between divided groups by disclosing the permanence of contest amid plurality as itself a democratic modality. This portrait of agonistic reconciliation is then contrasted with an alternative, where witnessing creates public space for contest - space which paradoxically precedes yet depends upon the exemplary courage of survivors who tell their stories. Together, these accounts advance the prospect of agonistic reconciliation as the twin practices of disclosure and witnessing, each a distinct, interrelated facet of democratic contest for and within public spaces where civic relationships are continuously performed and interrogated.

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  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
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    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.