Pamela Klassen offers her subtle and judicious book to us “in the spirit” of the call issued in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in Canada. Established in 2008 to examine the effects of the Indian Residential Schools, the commission elicited over six thousand testimonies from across the country and mainly from residential school survivors. These survivors, as Klassen poignantly observes, were removed from parents, grandparents, and the elders who might otherwise have told them the stories that held them together as peoples. The commission judged the school system to be a systematic attempt at “cultural genocide.” This is a strong condemnation, especially from a state-sponsored body. The implications of the charge, and the call for action the report issued, have been taken seriously by state and civil institutions in Canada. However, attention has primarily focused on the victims and survivors of the schools, with less attention paid to agents of colonialism, presumably because many of the leading figures are already well represented in Canadian national history. Nonetheless, the relative absence of those voices marks the Canadian TRC as distinct from the South African version, which did consider the stories of perpetrators. In the Canadian context, The Story of Radio Mind flips the script, offering us a dialogic history of settler colonialism.
Rather than place Indigenous survivors of the residential school system at the center, Klassen offers us the vexed figure of Anglican clergyman Frederick Du Vernet (1860-1924), who tracked the westward expansion of white settlement in Canada to become the first Archbishop of Caledonia, a diocese in British Columbia. She does not intend to exonerate him—or the church he represented—from his role in dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their lands, converting them to Christianity, and permitting the removal of Indigenous children to residential schools (a practice he protested, to no avail). Instead, she hopes that exploring the complexity of such a figure, his ambition and his flaws, his compassion and its limits, evokes the spirit of reconciliation. Klassen is not a cynic and, like the TRC commissioners, she believes in the power of stories to change understandings of self and other.
But unlike in the Canadian TRC hearings, Klassen amplifies Du Vernet’s story by taking a dialogic approach and drawing attention to other interpretations of his actions and his assumptions. She does so by laying bare what he could not hear or understand as he crossed Indigenous lands, talked with Indigenous peoples, and undermined their spiritual and material sovereignty. Thus, even when Indigenous voices and actions are excluded from Du Vernet’s own account, Klassen brings them back into the reader’s consciousness.
A significant contribution of Klassen’s approach is to fuse the spiritual with the material: to place the spirit of matter and matters of spirit at the center of her inquiry. Her approach refuses binary distinctions that may be associated with secular historical practice and gives us a much more holistic but no less analytically rich understanding of power. Her primary method for doing so is in drawing the reader’s attention away from semantic content of the array of sources she has collected, focusing instead on the forms of media through which colonization takes place and resistance is issued.
This focus on materiality leads to a second set of interesting, and pressing, questions to which historians of settler colonialism could pay more heed. Examining testimonies, photographs, maps, printing presses, and ultimately Du Vernet’s peculiar notion of “radio mind,” she asks her reader to pay attention to the ethics of making and using these media forms as much as their representational effects. For instance, as she explains in her analysis of photographs of Ojibwe graves, such photographs require “careful handling,” and today Ojibwe communities have successfully persuaded others—including Canadian cultural institutions—of the importance of that ethics of care in using this material.
Radio mind, too, is a medium that requires careful handling. According to Du Vernet, a “mystic of mediation,” radio mind was an immensely powerful force that could bring “the subconscious mind into touch with the Infinite”; or that would, in Klassen’s gloss, “harness[…] vibrations moving through the air,” enabling communication across vast distances. Du Vernet refined the practice of radio mind—a form of telepathy—with his daughter. But in Klassen’s telling radio mind is a metaphor for connection across temporal as well as spatial distance. The idea of radio mind is what grips her imagination when she stumbles across Du Vernet’s whacky theory when flicking through a 1922 edition of the Canadian Churchman and propels her back into the archives to find out more. It is an idea that drives institutional processes of reconciliation, too, a belief that pain caused years even many decades ago can be channeled into the present of narration; that distance—in space, time, even culture or experience—can be crossed and narrowed in the service not just of speaking but of being understood. This belief has a moral character, in the sense that proponents of reconciliation think that being able to cross that distance in order to hear the Other is a good thing.
However, in Klassen’s telling the idea of radio mind is a more ambivalent good. Insofar as radio mind might allow practitioners to read the thoughts of another without leaving home, it is also a measure of the limits of Du Vernet’s self-understanding as well as our own. Some “frequencies” are within our range of hearing and we do not have to move in order to receive them. But many others are not, and if we want to make those frequencies audible we will need to shift position, perhaps quite considerably. But how will we know if we are not hearing something? And what motivates us to orient ourselves to a different frequency?
Projects of reconciliation are often viewed in progressive terms, as processes that will shift national consciousness and understanding from a position of ignorance to one that is more informed, and morally improved. They are institutional responses to activism and public complaint and, in the case of the Canadian TRC, to legal action. They do not come about only because people want them to; there is an element of force in their enactment. That force might be legal, moral, or political, or a mixture of these. The forcefulness driving a state-wide reconciliation project is usually rendered in the terms of national exigency, where the “nation” represents the territorial extent of settler sovereignty—the project of colonization—and now aims to include all those who live within its borders. As the TRC report puts it, reconciliation is an “urgent” task that “must inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.”
Although Du Vernet was upset about the effects of the Indian residential school system, and supported and wrote letters on behalf of Haida, Ts’ymsyen, and Nisga’a, parents he knew who wanted their children back, he was not able to reconcile their needs with those of settlers or, indeed, with his own. As Klassen writes:
Hearing in one ear the bitter cry of the settlers who wanted schools for their children, Du Vernet heard in the other one similar anguished petitions from Indigenous parents. At a certain frequency, he understood that both these cries were related to the underlying fact of colonial dispossession and capitalist speculation. But he never quite put the two together.
Klassen is better able to put the two pleas together by deploying a theory of settler colonialism. This theory explains the distinctiveness of colonization in settler societies as driven by settlers’ need for land, which results in the “replacing” or even elimination (culturally if not physically) of Indigenous peoples on their own lands. She is drawing broadly on ideas associated with the Australian historian Patrick Wolfe, who developed his thinking about settler colonialism in a series of books and articles over the last two decades—however, unlike many theorists in the field, she takes account of the experiences of settlers themselves.1
Among the broad grouping of settlers today are a range of opinions on colonialism and its effects. Not everyone in settler states agrees that the “underlying fact of colonial dispossession” is as well-founded as Klassen assumes. Critics exert considerable energy in contradicting such facts or even denying their facticity. In Canada and Australia, where I work, some conservative historians, public figures, and politicians have pushed back against what they see as overly sympathetic representations of Indigenous grievances by liberal historians they argue are more concerned with making political points than sticking to the facts they approve. These “history wars” have directly influenced the design and delivery of school curricula. Public conflict has also impacted Indigenous communities, whom one Australian anthropologist has pointed out are the “collateral damage” of such bruising controversies.2
The strongest exponents of “denialism,” history “warriors” who abhor the politicizing of facts of dispossession, consider the “spirit” of reconciliation a liberal ruse and they refuse to be duped. They will not hear otherwise, or orient themselves to another frequency. No doubt their refusal expresses a complex pattern of belief and practice, matter and spirit, ethics and politics, that could itself be analyzed using the methods deployed by Klassen. The Story of Radio Mind asks us to pay attention to how hearing the Other is contingent on material, historical, and even personal conditions of audibility. By drawing on that method, we might consider how the “Other” is not only the colonized Indigenous figure but also the political opponent of reconciliation. Klassen therefore invites us into murkier political territory where we cannot take the conditions for listening for granted. We would do well to think more carefully about how such conditions come about.
See for example Patrick Wolfe, “Land, Labor and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (2001): 865-905; Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8, no. 4 (2006): 123-144; and Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London, 2016).↩
Gillian Cowlishaw, “Collateral Damage in the History Wars,” in Moving Anthropology: Critical Indigenous Studies edited by Tess Lea, Emma Kowal, and Cowlishaw, (Darwin, 2006): 131-146.↩