Truth-Telling by Wrong-Doers? The Construction of Avowal in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Jason Chalmers


The truth commission has emerged in the last thirty years as a distinct juridical form that views the production of truth as necessary, and in some cases sufficient, for achieving justice. In his history of truth-telling in juridical forms, Michel Foucault conducts a genealogy of avowal (or confession) in western judicial practice; critical to his definition of avowal is that the truth-teller and wrong-doer must be the same subject. In my analysis, I consider avowal in light of a relatively recent judicial innovation: the truth commission, with Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a particular case. The TRC’s emphasis on the testimony of victims rather than perpetrators means that truth-telling and wrong-doing are decoupled in this juridical form, suggesting that avowal is not a function of truth commissions according to Foucault’s criteria. Does this mean that truth commissions are not involved in truth production, or perhaps that they are not a juridical form in the lineage of those examined by Foucault?  The truth commission is a juridical form that Foucault was unable to address because it developed only after his death, and it is possible that it challenges his core understanding of avowal; however, the truth commission also appears to be consistent with trends that he predicted about the role of truth-telling in the modern judicial system.


qualitative methods; discourse analysis

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Canadian Graduate Journal of Sociology and Criminology (CGJSC)
Revue canadienne des études supérieures en sociologie et criminologie (RCESSC)

ISSN: 1927-9825