content notes: residential schools
From the perspective of psychoanalysis, curation, and care, X University* researcher and postdoctoral fellow Ricky Varghese and Toronto-based curator Vince Rozario discuss both the significance and insufficiency of the current gestures of iconoclasm and reflect on what role symbolic acts like the destruction of statues, performed apologies, and the proliferation of these images and gestures through social media platforms have in the social movements of today and the care and mending that colonial violence requires.
The summer of 2021 saw Indigenous communities across Turtle Island and settlers across Canada in an intense period of grieving and reckoning as ground-penetrating radar recovered unmarked gravesites of children who forcibly attended residential schools. For decades Indigenous residential school survivors and families had been calling for this investigation, solidified by the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report published in 2015. One hundred and thirty such schools across the country were government-funded from 1831 to 1996, and over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend. To date, 1,500 bodies have been detected at these school sites across the country, and the country is reeling with the not-new but tangible proof that most of the Indigenous children who did not return home to their families were buried onsite as the investigations continue. As Indigenous communities continue to engage in ceremony and grieving to honour their lost children, settler Canadians are forced to address a violent legacy the institutions have long suppressed.
Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
*In the summer of 2021, many students and faculty at Ryerson University began referring to the school as “X University” a move initiated by the Yellowhead Institute in reaction to Egerton Ryerson’s integral role in establishing residential schools.
Care and Historical Memory: An Exchange
There is a wild iconoclasm that smashes statues, gouges out eyes, and uses the debris to build new, better, bigger monuments. There is a gentler iconoclasm that sees beauty in rubble, and finds in the spectacle of dereliction the consoling reassurance that life carries on. There is a more muted kind of iconoclasm that embalms and catalogues the pieces. In the museum, the things can be divested of their magic and put out of circulation while still being appreciated as fine art. A yet more furtive iconoclasm breaks the spell of this enjoyment by turning this pleasure to subtle profit. The museum becomes a warehouse of examples that can be scrutinized as a vehicle of philosophical truth. Rebecca Comay, from “Defaced Statues: Idealism and Iconoclasm in Hegel’s Aesthetics”
Ricky Varghese (RV):
Following the toppling of the statue of Egerton Ryerson, the infamous architect of Canada’s residential school system at X University, images of the aftermath flooded social media platforms. Various images depicted the fallen statue drenched in red paint to represent the blood of Ryerson’s innocent victims, the statue’s head being severed from the rest of its body, protestors placing their feet on the severed head, and residential school survivors standing on it. The call to action somehow became reduced to an invective to produce content for Instagram and Twitter.
But what truth, philosophical or otherwise, can be gleaned from this moment? Why does it feel as though the response to structural inequities, the need for resources, and demands for redistribution and justice is so often inordinately symbolic, rather than materially consequential? Iconoclasm appears to be the order of the day, the ultracontemporary response par excellence to—and an obfuscation of—the demands being made for societal care. This is not to say that we are not resolute in our belief that every edifice to colonialism’s violent legacies needs to be rethought, brought down, and smashed.
Let us all start, again, with a tabula rasa, a veritable blank slate. But simply pulling down a statue does not make us suddenly postcolonial. At best, it foments a bit of high drama spectacularized in mainstream and social media. At worst, it becomes internalized and co-opted, by the logics of neoliberalism and late capitalism as a kind of band-aid, a cure-all, or worse still, a branding tactic incorporated into activist portfolios and business ventures, a rendered substrate of justice distilled to its most wantonly naive bad faith form—cultural capital. Iconoclasm can be a salve, but it cannot be the only remaining paltry recourse for the marginalized. Care cannot simply be made into a cunning artifice in itself.
Vince Rozario (VR): Our respective professions (psychoanalyst and curator) are putatively about providing care as well. However, the structures which govern these professions can often compel us to perpetuate the very harm we seek to redress. In Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights, Dian Million notes how discourses on “healing”, in academia and public policy, reduced the dispossession and violence wrought by Canadian settler colonialism to a series of discrete indicators of poor health among Indigenous people. In the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the state decided that the appropriate response to alleviating the health outcomes caused by settler colonialism—substance abuse, suicide risk, and early death—was to mobilize a series of therapeutic initiatives rather than giving Indigenous nations their rights to material self-determination. This transformed people who were seeking justice and access to their rightful lands and resources into passive trauma victims in mainstream discourse. Attempts to “heal” colonial traumas, which now constitute so much of the ground on which our practices of curation and psychoanalysis are built, thus bring us into a subordinate relationship with political agendas which perpetuate those traumas. It becomes imperative for conscientious practitioners to operate critically within the field.
A curator by etymological definition provides care. Though often the recipients of this care are not the communities historical legacies which our work often engages, but rather fetish objects generated for circulation in the market, or those carefully guarded within the vaults of institutions. Two years ago, I wrote an essay critical of cheyanne turions’ curation. I argued that her presentation of artist Nep Sidhu’s work retraumatized many members of Sikh communities by papering over the complexities and disjunctures within a highly traumatic history. One work in the exhibition waxed poetic about an imagined solidarity between Sikh and Indigenous communities, a solidarity which is still very much unrealized due to the structure of the Canadian colonial state and the way in which it assimilates racialized subjects. In a context where most immigrants to this country have been deliberately kept in the dark about its horrifically violent history, emancipatory fantasies such as these fulfill the symbolic function of reconciliation, deferring the hard work of material redress to a distant future that never seems to arrive.
Recently, the claims to indigeneity of a dozen or so academics—including turions, who has had a significant voice in the discourse around care and healing within Canadian contemporary art—have been called into question. In response to calls for accountability, turions has now clarified on her blog that she identifies as a settler, and is in the process of restituting the harms caused Indigenous peers, collaborators, and friends. We may view this identification crisis as a form of postcolonial melancholia—after Paul Gilroy’s eponymous text. Gilroy argued that postwar Britain, “has been dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that actually followed the end of empire.” This led to a psychopathology characterized by the “shock and anxiety that followed from the loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture.” The coeval desire to belong to stolen land, and the persistent denial of both the horrific atrocities of Empire and the dilution of white hegemony may explain the origins of these fantastical self-mythologies. So-called Pretendians are but one manifestation of this pathology. Its neuroses permeate the field of cultural production in Canada, often going hand-in-hand with re-settling the colonial imagination at a site where its influence has been disturbed.
Consider, for instance, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson’s A Public Apology to the Siksika Nation (2019), presented at the last Toronto Biennial. Bronson and Stimson are descendants of old rivals, Reverend John Tims and Chief Old Sun of the Siksika Nation, respectively. The brutal conditions of the residential school that Tims established on the Siksika reserve in Treaty 7 territory provoked an uprising led by Chief Old Sun. A century later, Bronson and Stimson engaged in a semi-televised process of research and community dialogue, culminating in two public performances at the Biennial. Syrupy and self-effacing, the text of the apology, later published and made available to visitors, ultimately satisfies the Canadian settler state’s melancholic fixation with reconciliation without truth. The complicity of settlers in the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land, much less that of the mix of banks, mining interests, and real estate developers that funded the Biennial, were left unaddressed. Now, as mass graves are unearthed at residential schools across the country, which Indigenous communities have known about for years, a similar theatre of ineffectual apologies without material redress is unfolding in the state and media. As these old wounds are reopened, the material impotence of these symbolic gestures is cast in sharper relief. Ultimately, a praxis of care with respect to this traumatic history remains absent in current systems of cultural production.
RV: There is something in the gesture of the apology that also appears to remake the case of residential schools into a thing of the past. But how can these schools be relegated to the distant past when the last federally operated one of its kind—Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan—only closed its doors in 1996, during many of our lifetimes? Speaking of melancholia in a clinical sense, we want to hold on to the past, but what we are actually holding onto is the inability to reckon with the past in the present. It is as though what we are witnessing here is a melancholic historification of the present itself. All we can gesture at is the removal of emblems and symbols that remind us of the past, without considering what sorts of actual material restitutions may be possible.
What does it also mean to exceptionalise evil into a single violent entity? What does it say about the everyday, ordinary, and ongoing violences that are in need of our urgent attention and response when it comes to the Indigenous peoples on whose land we find ourselves? As visibly-racialized settlers ourselves, writing as we are from a privileged vantage point embedded within the culture machine, these are some of the questions we have to tarry with. How can we step outside of this postcolonial melancholia—for the object, the edifice, but perhaps even more so a melancholia for the gesture of iconoclasm? Is there an outside or a beyond to this gesture’s implications that allows for care not to be engendered within a practice that repeats the violence, but one that is keenly attuned to the ethical dimensions that need to be considered, as well as to the very real conditions of life of the marginalized and on the margins?
VR: A question posed by Rebecca Comay, “What would it mean for our memorials to do our remembering ‘for’ us?” provides a meaningful entry into the condition of the racialized settler-subject in this context. The utility of gestures like AA Bronson’s apology is that they create a rehearsed formula that can be replicated ad nauseam to allow the settler a way out of confronting their own melancholia. A racialized settler, who may not share a part in the original sin of this country’s conception, nevertheless relies on these abstracted markers of historical memory to find belonging in their new home. This mediated memory gives what Comay terms, “an abyssal freedom in which the decentered subject finds itself overwritten by a signifying network that exceeds it: its own desire is registered as the desire of the Other” (92). In a sense, we inherit a borrowed pathology and then engage in the same process of denial and mythmaking as white settlers. This is often amplified through cultural production.
In 2019, following an “un-naming” ceremony which stripped former politician Harry Stevens’s (1878-1973) name from a federal building in Vancouver, a 4,000-square-foot-mural by Keerat Kaur and Alicia Point (Musqueam, Stó:lō, Kwantlen) was unveiled. It recounted the story of Musqueam paddlers bringing food and supplies to stranded Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru. However, Ali Kazimi, whose research on the Komagata Maru spans two decades and has produced a film Continuous Journey (2004), and the book Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru (2011) investigated the origins of the story and found no mention of it in either written or oral records. In fact, the story seems to directly contradict the actual written accounts of passengers in the archive, who record there being absolutely no food or water on board.
A position that is hemmed in by white supremacy on one end and the continued process of settler colonialism on the other is a difficult one to occupy. However, as this work reiterates, our desire to belong forges imagined solidarities with little material implications. Most newcomers to Canada are actively kept from knowing the gruesome fact of this country’s establishment, and rather than contend with the difficult work of understanding our complicity in this system, it is often superseded by symbolic gestures such as these.
RV: Returning to Comay, elsewhere she had already suggested that we be wary of this melancholic investment in symbolic and gestural forms of redress. Accordingly for her, this melancholia’s “tenacity would be the measure of the incommensurability of a loss whose persistence points both to the infinite need for and to the final impossibility of all restitution.” In the immediate context of grief and horror, there is a kind of magnificent pleasure in iconoclasm that cannot be denied. There is also a kind of care, for the self and one’s community, embedded in this ecstasy. However, we must ask after what this gesture may leave out when speaking of the ongoing struggle against colonial violence and how it becomes incorporated into a kind of institutional harm reduction. While a statue’s symbolic violence may be eradicated upon it being felled, the material violence of the ongoing colonial enterprise, on Wet’suwet’en territory, at Fairy Creek and many other sites of insurrection, still persists unabated. A discourse of care that the institution cannot seem to undertake is one that turns its attention back onto itself, beyond the gesture, to consider the ways by which it might indeed be implicated in the violences it claims to disavow.