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Theorizing Violence: The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian TRC

Open Panel

Abstract

Setting the scope for what transitional justice can and ought to do depends in part upon how we tell the story of violence, for this helps to establish perceptions of what justice and reconciliation require. This paper develops a growing strand of criticism about the bounding of transitional justice as a legal-political, rather than social justice, enterprise that narrows on individual instances of gross human rights violations. It asserts the importance of theorizing violence, in particular, the interconnection between acute and structural violence, when conceptualising processes of social and political transition. By focussing on the Canadian residential schools TRC, the paper challenges the parameters of “transition” in order to foreground colonization, social oppression, and cultural genocide in a “settled” democracy. It examines whether and how the Canadian TRC is institutionally poised to locate the “truth” of residential schools as one of colonial violence, broadly understood, and not just as instances of physical and sexual abuse. Even if institutional constraints can be mitigated, there remain significant normative challenges in deciding on a key narrative for the report-- one which avoids pathologizing Indigenous lives while also unsettling the status quo and laying the foundation for a socially transformative reconciliation aimed at decolonization. The paper concludes by locating the Canadian TRC internationally, where paradigmatic transitions too often pass over deep continuities in social inequality and structural violence, if not also colonialism.