The politicians in this place we call Canada have taken hold of the word reconciliation, using it in the House of Commons, in media appearances and in official documents, when they speak of relationships with Indigenous Peoples. The term comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on residential schools, which is in turn related to many other such commissions, in countries that include Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Congo and Sierra Leone.
But in Canada, most, if not all, politicians have dropped the word “truth” from the discussion. As if the truth telling that emerged through the commission’s work—first person testimonies, historical photographs and documents, the final report and calls to action—means that the Canadian government can dispense with the term, with truth, and move on.
The truth of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government is painful; it’s a long story to tell—more than 150 years long, with many, many voices speaking different languages, filtered through unique cultures, over vast lands. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools delved into only one of the crimes committed against Indigenous Peoples by Canada.
But focusing on reconciliation is a way for government and businesses to try and put the past behind them.
Before they understand it, people tend to talk about trauma in terms of wanting to put the past behind them; to move on, to stop rehashing things. This is because we, as human beings, want to avoid pain and fear. Yes, it’s very painful to dig up this past, the shared experience of Indigenous Peoples and settlers. It’s like cutting open the skin with no anaesthesia to drain an infection. And perhaps politicians and corporations want to avoid doing this for other reasons. Maybe it’s dangerous to go digging into history—it might de-stabilize the whole structure: the nation state, its very rich corporate allies, the stories many people tell themselves about Canada, about how everything’s turned out for the best; how we are the most peaceful nation on earth.
It’s not time yet for reconciliation because this country has not yet dealt with the pain and disfigurement just below the surface—a wound that will take a long time to heal. Every time it surfaces, there are people who act out in anger and fear, burning effigies of Indigenous People, throwing rocks, assaulting Indigenous women. Does their hatred come from a belief that their safe and wealthy way of life is actually their due and the result of their own hard work? That it is not in fact a privilege that Indigenous Peoples have paid the price for? Would understanding this make it possible to ease the pain and pour water on the raging fire that’s been burning them up for generations?
I wonder if this anger is also rooted in a misunderstanding about identity. If a person is born in Canada, then they are Canadian—there is nothing they need to do to earn their identity and citizenship. It’s a birthright that comes from being born on Canadian soil.
What if many Indigenous nations see the land where their community is rooted the same way—as the home of their nation? When they are born, they are Anishinabek, Kanienkehaka, Eeyou and so on—it is their birthright and can’t be bought or sold. It is often tied to the land where their nation is rooted.
In this case, the argument that Indigenous Peoples want land without paying for it fall apart. As with Canadian citizenship, Indigenous citizenship can’t be bought or sold. Of course, Canada, the nation state, does not recognize the other nations within its borders. And many Canadians don’t either. They see Indigenous land as belonging only to Canada. And many people believe all reserve land should become private property—broken up into lots to be bought and sold.
If Canada does not know its true history as told by all of us living in this place, Canada is doomed to repeat it. But if the true stories are told often enough, by everyone concerned, the notion of reconciliation might fall away and cease to matter. The scales could fall from eyes and ears. Hearts could open up, becoming bigger, capable of more compassion, able to hold more love. The scabs that have grown over the wound at the heart of this place called Canada might fall away.
But for the most part, Canada doesn’t acknowledge its history and so it repeats and repeats the same mistakes, getting the same results and never learning from them. Sometimes it steps out of the pattern of imposing its will on Indigenous nations and enters into true two-way relationships. Canada implements, together with Indigenous nations, agreements that are bilateral and both parties come away better off.
Some people living here are learning the history and seeing Canada differently–questioning its existence as it is today. Repudiating the pernicious ideas at the heart of Canada’s colonial history–that only Europeans were fully human and everyone else who was “discovered” was less than human. One of the earliest doctrines to articulate this idea is the Doctrine of Discovery, through which European explorers and colonists gave themselves permission to take all the land and wealth everywhere they went.
And so what, 500 years later, do we inherit from this legacy? What does it do to us as a people and as individuals, to live in a society made possible by treating the Indigenous Peoples as less than human? The legacy of this doctrine is the reserve system, the crisis in child welfare, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, multi-generational trauma caused by residential schools, alcohol and drug abuse and homelessness. And for us settlers, bewilderment, fear, anger and defensiveness at worst and at best a growing feeling that we are running out of time to save ourselves, whatever we may be–Canadians, inhabitants of Turtle island or immigrants. An urgency to save ourselves from growing environmental disaster and collapse, from living in a world solely ruled by institutions almost exclusively devoted to turning profits any way they can.
A truly depressing picture of Canada. But there is a lot of hope, although it is mostly about how things are going on the individual and interpersonal level. As individuals, Indigenous people from all nations are speaking out and transforming their own lives, their family’s and sometimes their community’s lives–pushing back against ignorance and fear. And many settlers are learning about the shared history of settlers and Indigenous Peoples—understanding better why we need to change the relationship in order to change the trajectory of our society as a whole.
There is hope that the Canadian government, under the Liberals, had the will and desire to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery by removing its influence from our laws and policies.
Even though Bill-262, an Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the UNDRIP, tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, died in the senate, where it was delayed by Conservative senators until the House rose for the summer, it is still remarkable.
It is very rare for non-governmental bills to pass through the House of Commons and to get as far in the Senate. So the fact that this Bill made it to the senate at all is a sign of hope and an indication of the government’s willingness to change. This happened because of widespread support for its passage throughout civil society, from churches, labour unions, human and environmental organizations and Indigenous leadership.
Progress is slow and unfolds along a twisting, difficult-to-discern path. But at least many people are on the path, catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror of truth and seeing the not just beauty but also the ugly parts. And starting to make room for the story that Canada has always wanted to forget. A story that told in its entirety, is breathtaking in beauty, courage and hope. By opening themselves to this painful history, they begin to recuperate the joy and wholeness they’ve been seeking all along.