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Phatic Rituals of the Liberal Democratic Polity: Hearing Voices in the Hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2015

James Slotta*
University of California-San Diego


The truth and reconciliation commissions of Latin America and Africa are paradigms of transitional justice, often regarded as part of the process of transitioning from authoritarian to democratic rule. But truth commissions are also common in first-world settler states, which raises the question of what “transition” such commissions effectuate in Canada, Australia, and the United States. This paper examines the efforts of Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to resolve a controversy over a government relocation of Inuit families in the 1950s for which the relocatees were demanding compensation. Concurrent with historical controversies in the Canadian courts concerning Aboriginal rights and title, the historical controversy over the relocation raised questions about the Canadian state's ability to “hear the voices” of First Nations people, who objected that their accounts of the past had been disregarded by government-contracted historians and courts alike. I argue that the Royal Commission's efforts to hear the voices of Inuit relocatees, showcased in nationally televised hearings, was a phatic ritual in which communicative contact between marginalized citizens and the state was ritually established. The ritual was presented as a remedy for failures to achieve phatic communion among citizens and state—a condition of communicative contact held up as essential to the realization of liberal democratic ideals. The work of the Royal Commission and other truth commissions highlights the growing prominence of communication, particularly liberal communicative events construed as “open,” “equal,” and “free,” as a concern of both theory and practice in liberal democratic polities.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2014 

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