“Reconciliation is a fuzzy concept,” psychology professor Dr. Katherine Starzyk said while discussing her involvement with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

In September 2014, Starzyk attended a UNDP workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, on peace building and conflict resolution processes. The workshop to inform future UN policy included UNDP, nongovernmental and intergovernmental representatives, as well as a handful of academics. It was held because of significant concern that the peace building and conflict resolution processes used in the past have failed to live up to their promise.

Since the creation of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, many countries have looked to this model and undertaken truth and reconciliation commission processes within their own countries, including Canada. Such commissions continue today despite the South African experience being considered unsuccessful by many observers. Starzyk notes that today in South Africa, tensions continue to simmer between groups, and the country has great structural inequality based on race.

The UNDP workshop focused on reconciliation as an “aspirational goal.” Starzyk noted that work completed by truth and reconciliation commissions may succeed for a short time but often conflict reignites.

Reconciliation means different things to different people. For some, an apology or compensation is an important moment when a country can put a “cap” on what’s happened before moving on. In many cases, though, victim group members view reconciliation as an ongoing process. Victim groups perceive structural inequality in society as evidence that reconciliation has not occurred and believe inequality and marginalization are at the root of conflict and fractured societies.

UNDP workshop participants agreed that reconciliation is best thought of not as an end point but something that needs to be progressively worked towards. This can be achieved by setting short-term, intermediate, and long-term objectives. Work beyond the truth and reconciliation commission is essential to its success and should include efforts at the national level, community level and interpersonally.  Most importantly, participants argued that reconciliation must be future orientated.


Is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada simply a truth commission?

I think that’s true. But I don’t get the sense that non-Aboriginal Canadians have been terribly engaged. They’ve been present in large numbers at the events, but it hasn’t been this inclusive process. I think it’s been more of a truth-telling process. I think given the resources and the timeline it is the best that can be accomplished. Unlike some other conflicts, there is less personal responsibility in Canada, fewer “direct” perpetrators. Canada has a large immigrant culture, so people don’t necessarily feel connected to that part of history.

Can you talk more about reconciliation as a future-focused undertaking?

Victim groups hope that it will never happen again. Part of their process of coping with what happened is to educate people on the past. Thinking about the past allows people to think about what has happened, and what was wrong about what happened. This is important for victims in general. It’s controversial for reconciliation to be a solely future-focused undertaking because victims may feel they are being re-victimized if you are moving forward, because they feel you haven’t spent enough time on the past. 

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