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Photo of crowd during Walk for Reconciliation.
Photo by Ben Powless
Culture & Society

Facing Up to Canada’s Past

Scholars at the Jackman Humanities Institute find optimism amidst the pain in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

As Canada embarks on a journey of restorative justice with its Indigenous Peoples, a group of scholars at U of T’s Jackman Humanities Institute are consulting with peers half a world away to find out how another country sought to heal from a violent and painful episode in its history.

In 1994, South Africa set up its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the gross human rights violations that occurred during the apartheid era. Neil ten Kortenaar, a professor of English at U of T Scarborough, is among more than a dozen U of T researchers, including several Indigenous people, who participated in a workshop in October at Six Nations territory near Brantford, Ontario. Eight scholars from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa also took part.

The event, part of a planned three-year collaboration between the two universities supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, found plenty of parallels between Canada and South Africa but also key differences, says ten Kortenaar. The South Africans, largely cynical about the outcome of their own commission, were startled by the hopefulness the Canadians expressed about theirs.

Twenty years on, the feeling among many South Africans is that their commission failed to come to grips with the broader social legacy of apartheid. “People who committed abuses admitted their guilt,” says ten Kortenaar, “but all of white society had benefited from the system. This wasn’t addressed, leaving the impression that it was a just a few people who had done these things.”

If there is a reason to be hopeful in Canada, says ten Kortenaar, it’s because Canada’s commission has focused more on policy and institutions than on individuals.

The group plans to meet again next year in South Africa, and will compare the impact of colonialism in each country and what’s been done to make each country more just. “The emphasis is on facing up to what’s been done,” says ten Kortenaar.

The Jackman Humanities Institute encourages collaboration among humanities scholars. It was established in 2008 out of a visionary $30-million contribution from Henry N. R. Jackman (BA 1953 Victoria, LLB 1956).

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