Moving Towards an Age of Reconciliation

Full Title: Moving Towards an Age of Reconciliation: Socratic Education as a Means to Reconcile with our Settler Colonialist History

Gabrielle Maerov

ARTSSCI 2A06: Practices of Knowledge

Canada’s history is composed of many horrors. Settler colonialism and the resultant cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples exhibit how Canada is far from achieving a clean slate. Not only has Canadian society yet to fully reconcile with its history of settler colonialism, but also settler colonialist sentiments and values are still systemically intertwined within it. There is a subconscious separation in many Canadians’ minds surrounding the idea that Indigenous people are “other.” They are in the polis, but not of the polis (Razack 55). Plato’s Republic delves extensively into the treatment of those who are not of the polis, presenting a starkly different approach to the consideration and treatment of these people than was the accepted sentiment in Athens at the time. The Platonic praxis concerning those deemed “other” as well as the educational program geared towards that praxis in Plato’s Republic can guide Canadian society towards becoming a more just polis in relation to its mindsets and practices surrounding Indigenous peoples.

The structure of The Republic depicts an educational process. Socrates’ interlocutors enter their discussion with unexamined ideas of what justice is and are educated towards a different understanding of the concept as the text progresses. Similarly, Canadians and Canadian society as a whole can be thought of as “miseducated” with regards to the settler colonialist fabric of our society. They are in need of a re-education similar to that which is depicted in the Republic. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which this miseducation is expressed in our society and explore Plato’s educational ideology as a means to shift our society’s settler colonialist propensities. Plato’s ideology can be applied to reconciliation in three steps. Firstly, there must be a change in our practices of knowledge surrounding ‘the other’ (in this case, Indigenous peoples) and how to coexist with the other. Secondly, Canadian society must work to shift away from unjust, settler colonial practices of knowledge, a process that is painful but necessary. Finally, those who have been reeducated have an obligation to help re-educate their fellow members of society. This process requires the educators to empathize with those whom they are re-educating, understanding that the re-education process can be difficult.

The first part of the re-education of an unjust polis that I will discuss surrounds the treatment of those who are “other.” This essay uses the term “other” in the context of comparison with Plato’s Republic, with the intention of demonstrating how to engage in re-education surrounding marginalized populations. As Sherene Razack points out, the “othering” of Indigenous peoples can be a problematic sentiment in other contexts (54). It is important to note that in the Republic, Socrates discusses the treatment of those who are other in the context of enemies and those with whom a city is fighting. This essay does not assert that Indigenous peoples and Canada as a society are or should be considered enemies. Rather, it will consider the broader meaning of the educational stance that Socrates takes in re-educating the polis on the treatment of “the other.”

The sentiments of Polemarchus and Thrasymachus in Book I of The Republic parallel many of the problematic sentiments interwoven into Canada’s current relationship with Indigenous peoples. The starting point in Polemarchus’ and Thrasymachus’ journeys of “re-education” surrounding justice can be compared to that of Canadian society. Thrasymachus boldly asserts that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger” (Plato 338c). He then claims that “each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage” (Plato 338e). Thrasymachus insinuates that if one person or group dominates another group, the dominating group defines just practices in ways that are conducive to its own agenda. This claim parallels the mindset behind settler colonialism. In his essay entitled “Jagged Worldviews Colliding,” Leroy Little Bear asserts that “One of the problems with colonialism is that it tries to maintain a singular social order by means of force and law” (77). Colonialism is, at its core, the overpowering of one group’s culture, governance, self-determination and economic independence. This overpowering, or “advantage of the stronger,” is still at the heart of Canadian society. For example, Indigenous peoples live in societies in which they possess the potential ability to govern themselves, and according to anthropologist Michael Asch, many groups of Indigenous peoples feel that they should have the right to do so. However, as Asch writes, what they do not have is “the recognition of that right by the Canadian and provincial governments, which continually use their police forces - and even the military - to impose Canadian laws on Aboriginal individuals and their societies” (1). A lack of recognition on the part of the Canadian government leads to a lack of resources to help Indigenous peoples realize the goal of self-government.

An example of how Canada inhibits the self-government of Indigenous peoples can be observed in the reliance of Indigenous peoples on the Canadian government for educational funding, and how this reliance prevents them from expanding their own education systems. According to a fact sheet produced by the Assembly of First Nations, there is a large discrepancy between the funding for Canadian public schools and First Nations schools (1). This funding discrepancy is problematic because First Nations communities are reliant on the government for money to operate schools, and yet the funding gap implies that Indigenous schools are somehow less worthy of funds than other schools. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Dr. Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor and activist, discusses the discrepancy between the quality of education in Canadian public schools and First Nations schools. She claims that the discrepancy is a result of more than a simple funding issue; there is a lack of political will to fix the problem, and to do so would require both a mental and legal shift on the part of the government (Palmater, “First Nations Education”). From an ethical standpoint, the poor quality of First Nations education due to a lack of government funding and support is decidedly unjust. However, it is permissible in Canadian society because the colonial government (the “stronger”) has allowed it to be so. When discussing these problems of dependence, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples states that, “Aboriginal peoples must have room to exercise their autonomy and structure their own solutions,” to escape Canada’s pattern of “debilitating and discriminatory paternalism” (Ponting, 469). As a result of being dependent on the “advantage of the stronger,” many First Nations communities do not have the room or autonomy to find solutions to issues such as the educational funding gap.

In addition to Thrasymachus’ views manifesting in Canadian society, Polemarchus’ idea that “justice is helping friends and harming enemies” (Plato 334b) is prevalent in Canada. The idea that it is just to harm those who are not friends is extremely problematic. This sentiment allows a society to adopt the mentality that people are either “of the group,” or “other,” and that it is permissible to act unjustly towards the latter. That is not to say that those who are other are always viewed in a negative light in our society. Indeed, Canada is a country that celebrates the multiculturalism of its inhabitants. However, there often exists an implicit separation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples, one which can prove to be detrimental to Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous population. An example of this in Canadian society is the disturbing phenomenon of freezing deaths among Indigenous people. These deaths occur when police “arrest” Indigenous individuals and deposit them, often without proper clothing or shoes, on the outskirts of cities in the dead of winter with no means to get back home (Razack 53). The question we must ask ourselves is, what sentiments ingrained in Canadian society would give police officers leave to commit these atrocities? Sherene Razack asserts that there is “a pervasive and active dehumanization of Aboriginal people,” which allows police to regard them as “other” rather than as members of society (54). Socrates challenges Polemarchus’ aforementioned notion of justice, claiming that when human beings are harmed, “they come out worse” (Plato 335c). Socrates explains that an unjust action imposed on an individual will cause that individual to be unjust. To harm a human being can cause that person not only to be unjust to others, but also to themselves. The segregation of a class of people deemed to be “enemies” diminishes the dignity of that people and can perpetuate feelings of anger and self-loathing. It is clear that to define justice as “the advantage of the stronger” or “doing good to friends and harm to enemies” is a problematic way to view justice. These views define the starting point of both The Republic and Canada’s current societal state -- the point from which Plato’s process of re-education can begin.

When Plato wrote the Republic, Athens was engaged in a brutal war with Sparta. As demonstrated by the views of Polemarchus and Thrasymachus, justice in that time of war was largely equated with dominance in conflict. By contrast, Socrates maintains that even to an enemy of war, the just person must show respect and dignity (Plato, 469b-470a, 471a-471b). For example, according to Socrates, a victor in war must never enslave the defeated, disrespect their dead, defile their religious institutions or ravage and burn their countryside and homes (Plato, 469b-470a). This is a truly revolutionary stance for a city engaged in ongoing violence.

An important message can be gleaned from Socrates’ point in relation to settler colonialism in Canada: we exist in a society in which one group has dominated another for many centuries. Yet, this fact does not, and should never, give Canadians leave to treat Indigenous peoples without dignity. Furthermore, there are two facets of dignity that ought to be considered. Firstly, we must consider the dignity of human beings. In prohibiting his polis from disrespecting the dead of the vanquished, Socrates is indicating that even if one is facing the body of an enemy, it is crucial to remember that it is the body of a human being, and that every human being is inherently valuable. Secondly, one must respect “the other” not only as a human being but also for their otherness and their existence as a people. This is demonstrated by Socrates’ preaching that a conqueror must never disrespect the religious institutions of the conquered. Religious institutions play a key role in the culture and identity of a people; thus, by respecting them one respects the validity of the existence of that people. Socrates also notes that one must not ravage the lands of an enemy. This principle, in addition to that of respecting the religion of “the other,” has been, and continues to be, grossly neglected by the Canadian settler state.

While discussing the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, University of Calgary professor Rick Pointing asserts that “Sociologically, recognition is extremely important to colonized or otherwise subordinated people. [It] offers not only social status and symbolic gains, but also eligibility for a share of scarce resources” (454-55). Fred Kelly, a survivor of residential schools, discusses the damage that a lack of recognition of the lands and religions of Indigenous peoples can inflict. . He writes, “By section 91(24) of the British North American Act, the federal government reserved for itself exclusive and total control over “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians” (20). He argues that “To take the territorial lands away from a people whose every spirit is so intrinsically connected to Mother Earth was to actually dispossess them of their very soul and being” (20).

Settler colonialists in Canada have done the opposite of what Socrates teaches with respect to those who are “other,” with ongoing intergenerational impacts on Indigenous communities. An example of these repercussions can be observed in the effects of the Indian Residential School system on Indigenous communities. Through this system, settler colonialists took Indigenous children from their homes and communities in an attempt to “re-educate” them into being civilized Canadians (Taylor). The goal of the schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society and dispossess them of their cultural identities. Children in the residential school system were victims of both physical and emotional abuse. In contrast to the values outlined in Socrates’ teachings, residential schools were designed to strip children of their dignity. Furthermore, the schools were created specifically to rid Indigenous people of their “otherness” rather than to celebrate it. Not only did the schools cause trauma to survivors, , but they also continue to be the cause of intergenerational trauma in many Indigenous communities. For example, Fred Kelly writes that trauma from the schools often emerges in the survivors as “personal dysfunction or aberrant behaviour that also has consequences for the family and the community” (29). Further, this trauma can perpetuate instances of rage and lateral violence, as well as addictive and suicidal behaviour (29-30). The effects of the residential school system are a testament to the consequences of societal actions that cause harm to the “other.”

In light of Canada’s historic and ongoing settler colonialist tendencies, reconciliation can be an opportunity to adopt Socrates’ revolutionary principles. All of the ways in which Socrates discusses the treatment of “the other” involve physical actions taken rather than simply idle talk about justice. For example, Socrates states that victors in war must actively treat “their opponents in a kindly way, not punishing them with a view to slavery or destruction” (Plato 471a). In teaching that victors in war must never disrespect the bodies of their enemies or defile their homes and institutions, Socrates demonstrates the importance of embodying justice towards “the other” through one’s actions, even amidst the brutality of war. Thus, reconciliation in Canada must move beyond speech and into embodied reconciliation, or reconciliation through action. Historically, Canada has made speeches of reconciliation that are not always reflected in governmental policies (Kelly 21-22). Thus, a question remains: how can Canada be educated towards a true, embodied reconciliation, and what might this process look like?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can provide insight into the above question. In the Allegory of the Cave, Socrates describes human beings who are trapped in a cave, seeing shadows of things outside projected before them. These people are bound and are thus unable to see the real forms of the things passing by the cave (Plato 514a). Socrates maintains that these people would believe that the shadows are the true forms of what they are seeing, when in reality, they are artificial (Plato 515c). The people in the cave view the world through the scope of a narrow lens. The allegory insinuates that people must adopt a wider lens when examining the truths of their existences. Applied to the Canadian context, this would require Canadians to critically examine the lens through which the Indigenous community is perceived. When settler colonialist values have been ingrained in the structure of society for a long time, people in a settler colonialist society grow up within the cave of these values. It is easy to go through life without challenging these views, and continuing to hold them as a form of truth. Yet, in order for there to be a societal shift towards a more just existence, people must be released from the bonds of society’s structural discrimination. To truly bring about this shift is an immensely complicated endeavour; it means more than simply speaking words of reconciliation. Rather, we must come to terms with the atrocities of our country’s past, and fundamentally shift many policies and practices. These may include a rebalancing of political and economic power, an acknowledgment of our settler colonialist history, and a fundamental reallocation of lands and resources (Ponting 470).

The process of coming to terms with our past and leaving the cave will be very difficult and painful. Indeed, Socrates describes that when a man who is released from his bonds and views the world in the light of truth, he experiences pain and wishes to flee from this revelation (Plato 515e). However, Socrates continues, if that man were to become accustomed to the light, he would be able to perceive the highest form of good (Plato 516a-516b). It is important to note the emphasis that Socrates places on the difficulty and pain that accompanies an exit from the cave. It requires a full shift of one’s body towards a light that one would rather not see. This is a salient point, as this reluctance characterizes much of Canada’s history. For example, Canada has often subsisted on a reputation for being a pure, peaceable country. In fact, at a G20 summit, former prime minister Stephen Harper stated that Canada has no history of colonialism (Wherry 1). It is clear that the denial of our history has pervaded society even to the highest level of government, and Socrates prepares us for the fact that a fundamental re-education will be both difficult and painful.

In order for re-education to occur, its process must be executed through the collective responsibility of society. That is, re-education must come not only from our leaders, but also from the accountability of us as individuals. Socrates states that the power of education is “in the soul of each” (Plato 518c). Further, those who have been reeducated must "go down…into the common dwelling of the others and get habituated along with them to being [in] the dark” before helping to educate those who are trapped in the cave (Plato 520c). This means that in order for one to educate one’s fellow members of society towards a more just existence, one must find empathy for them, recognizing that the process of re-education is difficult and that others might be reluctant to be re-educated. The idea that empathy for others is a key component of societal re-education is further reflected when Socrates states that “the community of pain and pleasure is the greatest good for a city” (Plato 464b). This means that in the most just society, if one member or group of society experiences pain or misfortune, this pain is felt by all due to the presence of empathy. In order for a society to be just, its members must have empathy for the practices of knowledge of marginalized groups. In Canadian society, this empathy can manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, the practices of knowledge of Indigenous people should be celebrated instead of suppressed. Secondly, we must empathize with those who still practice knowledge in the cave of denial about settler colonialism, so as to understand the starting point from which they can be re-educated.

With this idea of empathy in mind, Plato’s Republic is an exemplary text. Not only are we, as readers, taught how to educate a society towards a more just existence using empathy, but we are also shown what this educational process looks like from a practical standpoint. Plato allows us to be flies on the wall of an educational process between Socrates and his interlocutors. We read and learn as Socrates gently guides his interlocutors from their skewed views of justice towards a better understanding of what it means to be just.

Using Plato as a guide for the re-education of Canadian society, we learn that Canadian ideas of what it means for someone to be "other" and what it means to serve justice to the "other," must be shifted. Rather than doing good to friends and harm to enemies (those who are other), we must treat those who are other with dignity and respect. We also learn that the process of reconciliation will be difficult and painful, yet ultimately it is our pathway towards a more just existence. Finally, we learn that we must be accountable as individuals for shifting the settler colonialist fabric of society. Ponting writes that “governments and national Aboriginal organizations [must] commit themselves to building a renewed relationship based on justice and fairness - in particular, on the principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing, and mutual responsibility” (458). If we re-educate society according to these values, perhaps we will be able to pave the way to an age of reconciliation.

Works Cited

AFN Fact Sheet - First Nations Education Funding. Assembly of First Nations, May 2002.

AFN Fact Sheet - Misconceptions. Assembly of First Nations, May 2002.

Asch, M. “Self-Government in the New Millenium.” Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada, edited by J. Bird et al., Irwin Publishing Inc., 2002.

Kelly, F. “Confessions of a Born Again Pagan.” From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2008, pp. 13-40.

Little Bear, L. “Jagged Worldviews Colliding.” Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, edited by M. Battiste, University of British Columbia Press, 2000, pp. 77-85.

Monture-Angus, P. “Lessons in Decolonization: Aboriginal Overrepresentation in Canadian Criminal Justice.” Visions of the Heart: Canadian Aboriginal Issues, edited by D. Long and O. Dickason, Harcourt Canada Ltd, 2000, pp. 361-386.

“Pamela Palmater on First Nations Education.” Interview of Pamela Palmater, Toronto Star, 5 Sept. 2014,

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Translated by Bloom Allan, 2nd ed., Basic Books, 1991.

Ponting, J. “Getting a Handle on Recommendations of the Royal Commission.” First Nations in Canada, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd, 1997, pp. 445-472.

Razack, S. “It Happened More than Once: Freezing Deaths in Saskatchewan.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 53-80.

Taylor, Adam. “Did Canada Commit a 'Cultural Genocide'?” The Washington Post, WP

Company, 2 May 2019,

Wherry, A. “What He Was Talking About When He Talked About Colonialism.” Maclean’s, October 1, 2009.

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