People form a circle during a vigil in Toronto – Photo by Chris Young | The Canadian Press

On May 27, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported that the remains of 215 children had been identified on the grounds of a former Indian Residential School (called Boarding Schools in the US) near Kamloops, B.C. Casimir reported that to the best of the community’s knowledge, the deaths were undocumented and that some of the children were as young as three.

The shocking and highly disturbing news has sent reverberations of regret and anger across Canada and around the world. It is said that in the United States the original sin is racism. In Canada, if there is anything comparable, the original sin is the embarrassing and shameful history of the relationship between settler Canadians and their Government and the indigenous nations of this land.

As a philosopher, I can tell you that we are not very good at finding the right words when it comes to tragedy, but sometimes silence is more important than words. This is a case where respectful silence and a recommitment to reconciliation is appropriate.

What philosophers are good at is understanding. How could there have been an attitude, among white European settlers, that allowed the road of exploitation, cultural genocide, and murder to be constructed as a collective path of progress? As a white person looking back, what were my ancestors thinking and why?

Phenomenology: Lifeworld and Intentionality

Phenomenology is not easy to define, but it is extremely significant for understanding. Epistemology is sometimes defined with the question, How do we know what we know? Phenomenology sometimes uses a similar question to define itself. Phenomenology asks, How do we experience what we experience? Why do we experience things the way we do?

Getting at the phenomenological question involves some technical language, which I will refrain from using. There are two words, however, necessary to use. One is the lifeworld. And the second is intentionality.

The lifeworld is as it sounds. It is the world we live in. It is not the objective world “out there” on its own. It is the world we live in according to our way of making sense. The lifeworld can be thought of as the values used to decide what is important. The lifeworld is the “circumference” of the world that I know, that I move in, and that I judge. The lifeworld is my social reality.

The lifeworld is significant in phenomenology because there is not just one lifeworld, there are multiple lifeworlds. Every individual occupies a lifeworld to some degree, but more specifically cultures occupy lifeworlds. Different cultures have different ways of valuing and judging, of perceiving and understanding, of prioritizing and acting in the world. There is not just one lifeworld with one circumference; there are a countless number of cultural lifeworlds that intermix and exchange endlessly.

In every lifeworld, the act of making a judgement or of setting a value is called intentionality. We can think of intentionality as the orientation we hold toward the world when interpreting it. There are two elements to intentionality. One is the heritage of my culture. My culture more or less gives me a value system. The system is my cultural lifeworld. The other element is me. What do I do with the heritage I hold? Do I simply repeat and reapply the same set of values that my ancestors used or do I find a different way to consciously re-evaluate the values or reconstruct them? Becoming conscious of intentionality is the groundwork in phenomenology because it is what makes the question about how I experience what I experience possible.

When we consider phenomenology against the backdrop of indigenous history in North America since colonial times, there are so many questions and comments that come forward. It is pretty clear that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European “intentionality” is what arrived on these shores centuries ago.

European Enlightenment in North America: Some History

During the Enlightenment the lifeworld of Europe broke free of the Middle Ages, when the husbandry of land was the central value. The Middle Ages had incredible problems with its hierarchical structures and its Lord-Vassal relationships, but it did not have a problem understanding land. The land, in Martin Heidegger’s famous distinction, was not a place but a dwelling. It had its haunts and its gods. It had a characteristic way of being, and it had an identity. With the fall of the Middle Ages, land became capital. It was not a dwelling anymore; it was an economic value.

In the period of colonization, what came across the ocean to North America was Enlightenment intentionality. It was a new industrial form of valuation that did not have gods associated with land and that could no longer understand what “dwelling” meant. To the First Nations already here, land could not be bought or sold. Land is like the air we breathe. You can’t own land. Land has a spirit. It is dwelling, and everybody gets to dwell. But to the European lifeworld, land was a commodity that could be bought, owned, sold, and traded. Land did not have a spirit. It had a price.

The tragedy of this clash of lifeworlds is that the European lifeworld came with gunpowder, which gave a sense of control over nature. Land could be forcibly moved, railroads could be built even through rocks, and animals could be hunted for sport. In the eyes of indigenous people, what arrived with colonial powers was irresponsible values or, perhaps, no values at all. And yet, in the European view, the power of technology was the power to conform nature to the human will. A second tragedy resulted:  indigenous people were “natural” people who needed to conform, by force if necessary, to the order of intentionality now called European civilization.

What now?

My white ancestors never understood lifeworlds and were never conscious of their form of intentionality. When they heard that the land had spirits and that the people were responsible for the spirit of the land, they shook their heads. They could only hear paganism, which was naturalism in their minds, that needed the enlightenment of their god called civilization. They did not recognize their violence, and when they perpetrated violence, they felt justification rather than shame.

Reconciliation between white settler people and First Nations people will be a long and painful process, but it will never happen without white people admitting and understanding their heritage. It is not wrong to re-evaluate the statues of white heroes. It is not wrong or disrespectful to admit atrocities committed in the name of white gods. It is right to become conscious of lifeworlds, and it is right to work to build a new “intentionality” that can bridge these worlds, form respectful dialogue, and discover a new future together. It is right to hope. The optimism is possible if the 215 are not forgotten and if the wisdom of phenomenology is put into practice.

David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.


Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg