Power and Politics in Apologies and Paintings

Yesterday Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of Canada to the Tsilhqot’in Nation. This is neither a new nor an unusual act for a Prime Minister of Canada to take, after all Trudeau has made similar apologies in the past (such as the one he made for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident) as did his conservative predecessor Stephan Harper (who went as far as initiating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission over residential schools). What was new, and yet very much expected, was the response: an all too familiar spewing of vitriol on social media. A quick look at the comment section and you will discover such gems as “we should be focusing on the future and not the past,” “what are they complaining about, this happened 150 years ago,” and an assorted collection of similarly intellectually rigorous suggestions. With my usual lack of self-control, I dove head first into the argument by asserting that reckoning with our past is a necessity, only to be told things like “the idea of white privilege is a hoax” (which it isn’t), “natives are better off because of Canada” (tell that to the survivors residential schools), and “I wasn’t there so I shouldn’t be held responsible.” All of these comments are obviously problematic and rooted in a larger misunderstanding of the colonial experience and the real implications that it had for indigenous people as well as for the settler’s that they interacted with, a testament to the sorry lack of education on the subject. However, I do not plan on discussing much on this subject here as I would never be able to match what has already been said, particularly by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (a book I would highly recommend reading).

Instead, I want to try and answer just one of those comments here in length: “I wasn’t there so I shouldn’t be held responsible.” It was the comment I received the most and, I would argue, with good reason as it seems perfectly logical. After all, we don’t hold children responsible for the debts of their parents, so why should be hold them responsible for their actions? Moreover, many, likely the majority in fact, of Canadians are descended from people who immigrated to Canada long after the Tsilhqot’in War of 1864 for which Trudeau is responsible (for the sake of brevity I will not go into the details of the conflict, but I would advice anyone interested in learning more to start by reading the Wikipedia page for the conflict). However, this is nonetheless an extremely problematic line of thinking to take. Firstly, I will begin by asking the simple question of what harm does apologizing do? It costs us nothing, being literally the least we can do, and yet goes a long way towards making amends. Despite this, I am sure many would still argue they should not have to give an apology as they were not there, they are not responsible for the wrongs inflicted upon the Tsilhqot’in people, and so there is not requirement that they do anything. This obstinate refusal to apologize seems childish, yet it still raises the question of why should we apologize if we are not responsible? It is this question that brings me to my second point.

Now if you will indulge me, I would like to shift away from apologizing for past offenses for a moment, though I promise I will return to the subject, to talk about art. In particular, I want to talk about Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. Now this painting may be my favourite, indeed I must admit that I am a bigger fan of Jacques-Louis David and his triumphant neo-imperialist style that is on full display when he depicts Napoleon crossing the Alps or crowning himself emperor, it is still an absolute masterpiece both in terms of its aesthetic and the way it plays with perspective. Foucault, the eminent French thinker, seems to be of this belief as well as he begins his book “The Order of Things” by spending the opening chapter discussing this painting, critically analysing it, and attempting to understand the role played by each actor present inside — and importantly outside — the painting. If you haven’t heard of it before, it is an interesting piece that seems to show the artist himself painting a portrait of the king and queen of Spain, who are only visible in a mirror, while their daughter, the Infanta Margaret Theresa, and her entourage have come to apparently watch. Foucault’s critical analysis is complex and I would certainly recommend giving it a read, as his prose is captivating and his arguments are intriguing (to give but a taste, his point in the analysis is to provide a vivid image for the transition between the Classical epistime and Modern epistime). In particular though, I would draw your attention to the following passage: “That space where the king and his wife hold sway [in the case of the painting, the mirror] belongs equally well to the artist and the spectator: in the depths of the mirror there could also appear — there ought to appear — the anonymous face of the passerby and that of Velazquez. For the function of that reflection [of the King and Queen in the mirror] is to draw into the interior of the picture what is intimately foreign to it: the gaze which has organized it and the gaze for which it is displayed.” (Foucault, The Order of Things, pp. 16–17) It seems an odd assertion to make that the mirror should reflect the faces of individuals not directly in front of it, given that the painting is rendered like a photograph of a moment, at until you remember that Foucault’s analysis was not meant as a pure contribution to art, but rather as a way by which to render the underlying modes of thinking that form the basis of Las Meninas (namely that the mirror reflects what can not be represented within the confines of the painting).

At this point we can return to the topic at hand and once again discuss the need to for Canada, collectively, to apologize to the Tsilhqot’in nation. You see we, the settlers who came to Canada, may not have committed these actions, and indeed our ancestors may not have committed them either. However, power has two faces, which are the two characters Foucault believes ought to appear within the mirror as the mirror is the literal domain of sovereignty itself (this may not necessarily be Foucault’s main point in his analysis, but to me it seems an unavoidable conclusion, particularly when we consider the central themes of power and order). Firstly there is the active agent, the painter of the painting and those behind the execution Tsilhqot’in, who is the one that has committed the deeds. The active agent is the wielder of power, and often the agent that we most associate with power (in this case, the government). Secondly, there is the passive agent, the viewer of the painting and all of us who call ourselves Canadian today, for whom the deeds were committed. In this way we are reminded that power is always wielded both by something and for something, even if the agents involved are unaware of the use of this power (given his belief that order exists a priori to the individuals involvement with that order and things ordered by it, Foucault may go as far as saying that the agent may always be unaware of their use of power or at least be unable to change the meaning behind that use of power). We living today may not have sentenced those chiefs to die, but we have profited and gained from that past action and therefore have a responsibility to make amends even if we are not responsible for the action itself. Indeed, I am not arguing that people ought to be held responsible for the deeds of past generations, but simply that is imperative that we recognize that we have gained from those deeds. Canada is a state founded on land that once belonged to other people, land that was stolen from these people, through actions like the executions of the Tsilhqot’in, for our benefit today. As the recipients of these benefits, as the passive agent of power, it is up to us to reckon with the actions of the past, the actions of the active agent of power, and to right them as best we can.

As I said before: apologizing is the least we can do. Now to that I will add: if we do not apologize, if we do not make things right, then who will?

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!