photo: flickr/Keoni Cabral

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Canada is at something of an historical impasse: perhaps too hastily reckoning with a murderous past without thinking hard about the future that reckoning would necessarily demand.

The state, again and again, is saying sorry; here, “sorry” simultaneously tries to make up for wretched modes of settler governance and to stand in for worlds we — First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, that is — won’t ever get back, ones we lost in the name of a drive to confederate a new nation atop older ones. I suspect reconciliation is supposed to sustain Canada’s attachments to life, to this land, and to the future its statecraft needs to persist as such.

We aren’t going away, and the state is slowly opening its eyes up to our staying put. But, in the aftermath of the staunchly voyeuristic theatres of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and of the monetary reparations that could not heal the wounds that eventually morphed into bodies, I’m interested in the “what” of reconciliation, asking: 1) to what end does the state want to reconcile and 2) how might we be in this world without wanting it?

What of the deeply stubborn traces of a governmental enterprise that lawfully desired our elimination, that corralled and still corals Indigenous peoples in prisons and cemeteries in order to disappear us and the ancient legal and political orders hidden in our breathing?

Reconciliation is an absolutely historiographic project, one that forces us to ask: in what way will we — the nation — relate to the past, and how will it give way to a future that might better contain our feelings in the good? Indeed, how might it re-distribute the good life to those for whom that fantasy has hitherto been outside arm’s reach?

Reconciliation is a contradictory object: it emerges out of bad feelings but, at the same time, stalls in the face of them in the present. It only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain. But ours are bodies that still shake, that traffic in the bad because we know that a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.

In a world that wants you to constantly accumulate things — ideas, objects, capital, apologies — at the expense of literally everything else, not wanting emerges as a sore point, slowing things down and getting in the way, so to speak. It’s heartbreaking: knowing that this world didn’t want you in the first place, but that it nonetheless doubles as your condition of possibility, your everything, the only thing you have.

To not want is to let your desires run wild, to wish for something else, to withhold from acknowledging a lack because no one has the thing or things you need to flourish. Not wanting is not about outright refusal, but about living in an impasse without turning it into a utopia that doesn’t actually exist as such. We are almost suffocating under capitalism’s atmosphere of disaffection** such that our feelings aren’t necessarily of our own choosing.

Reconciliation pushes us to feel something: anger, optimism, hope. But, what of the work of pessimism in the face of ongoing death, of ecological ruin, of structural attrition?

Indigenous peoples are time travellers and shape-shifters, ghosts and astronauts. Some of us are already on our way to the future, but we are not yet there. I am not suggesting that we abandon reconciliation as an object and practice entirely, but that we bring into focus the ways in which we were and continue to build worlds outside its governmental boundaries.

In a word: reconciliation cannot be an end in and of itself. For me, it is just a stepping stone, a mode of harm reduction that might help us better survive the now such that new generations of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples can will into existence a world that can hold all of them. This world isn’t for us anymore; but we’ve know that for quite some time.


Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a 2016 Rhodes Scholar-elect and is completing a BA (Honours) in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, working at the intersections of native studies, queer theory, affect theory, and critical animal studies. He blogs and writes poetry at

Writer’s note: My title refers to Lauren Berlant’s work on the biopolitical labor of existing; in particular, her talk: “On Being in Life Without Wanting the World.”

** See Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.

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Keep Karl on Parl