What is reconciliation? Reading the river

At the beginning of the 1990 school year in downtown Montreal, I saw four people sitting outside at a table in the autumn sun. They had long hair and one of them wore a jacket—three-quarter-length, a rich brown colour. To me, those four (three guys and a woman) looked like movie stars. I didn’t know it then, but they were all art students at Concordia University. I would get to know them and hear some of their stories. At the time I didn’t know they were Saulteaux or Gitxsan, Apache or Haisla. I had never heard of the Haisla people. I had yet to learn that the name of the Haisla village, Kitamaat, means “valley of snow.” Later on, I joined an activist group to raise awareness about Indigenous peoples, who were still called “Native” people at the time. Those four were a part of the Native students’ group and we did things together – co-sponsored political and cultural events, attended the same parties, hung out and talked. This began in the fall of 1990 when the Oka Crisis was still happening. The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people did not walk out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatà:ke, holding up their sacred masks, until September 26, 1990, when they were arrested, loaded on a bus and taken to prison. Now, after more than 25 years, I still attend the Kanehsatà:ke powwow in summer to visit friends and acquaintances in that small Mohawk community 60 kilometres west of Montreal.

I remember one summer day in 1991, walking along the road through Kanehsatà:ke to my friend Joe’s house. Joe was one of the people arrested the previous fall on September 26. A Mohawk man, Joe was an artist and had studied art at Concordia. He was also friends with some of the other Indigenous artists I met in the fall of 1990. The day I went to visit him was bright and sunny. There were hayfields on either side of the road. Joe’s house was perched on a hill overlooking the fields. Joe was a thoughtful, reflective man – a painter, sculptor and gardener. He stayed behind the barricades, surrounded by the Canadian army, until the very end. Even though I was quite young then—22 years old—I could tell that things were hard for him. He was pushing through trauma to pursue a creative life after Oka, still trusting in the goodness of people. The day I visited, I spent time walking through the Pines, a stand of trees planted by the ancestors of the people who live there now.

The community’s name, Kanehsatà:ke, refers to the sandy ground that characterizes the territory. The ancestors of the Mohawk people living there now planted the pine forest to stop erosion. In April 1989 the grove of pine trees became the site of a peaceful protest against a golf course expansion planned by the nearby town of Oka, Quebec. After a year of protests, the Mohawk people put up concrete barriers in the spring of 1990 to prevent the town from cutting down any of the Pines and encroaching on the Kanehsatà:ke cemetery. Tensions between the town and Kanehsatà:ke rose and July 1990, the Sûreté du Quebec moved in with tear gas and rubber bullets, intending to remove the barricades and allow development to go ahead. Then the peaceful protest exploded into an international incident.

The Oka Crisis was the name that the Canadian media and government gave to this conflict, referring to the neighbouring town. According to Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk from Kanehsatà:ke, the conflict would be more aptly named “the siege of Kanehsatà:ke.” The police and then the Canadian army surrounded the Mohawk people for 78 days, surrounding the Pines and setting up razor wire. Military helicopters with spotlights flew over the Pines day and night. I remember, back in 1990, seeing Ellen Gabriel on the evening news, speaking on behalf of the Kanehsatà:ke clan mothers, saying “All this over a god-damn golf course?”

The Mohawk people are part of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois), which means People of the long house:

The confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision making. Through the confederacy, each of the nations of the Haudenosaunee are united by a common goal to live in harmony. Each nation maintains it own council with Chiefs chosen by the Clan Mother and deals with its own internal affairs but allows the Grand Council to deal with issues affecting the nations within the confederacy.

The Haudenosaunee symbol of the long house…is recognized in traditional geographic locations. Upon confederation each nation took on a role within the metaphorical longhouse with the Onondaga being the Keepers of the Fire. The Mohawk, Seneca and Onondaga acted as the Elder Brothers of the confederacy while the Cayuga and Oneida were the Younger Brothers within Grand Council. The main meeting place was and still exists today on Onondaga territory.

The Tuscarora nation joined the league after leaving their traditional territory in North Carolina and Virginia to become the sixth nation.

-from The Haudenosaunee confederacy website

During the siege of Kanehsatà:ke, the Kanehsatà:ke Mohawks called on other Mohawk communities and other nations of the Haudenosaunee to come to their aid.

If I return again to my memories of the four artists sitting in the sun that fall day, I remember some things I learned from them. In the winter of that year (1991), I went on a trip with them and other Indigenous and settler students to visit Quebec Indigenous communities (mostly Cree). It was a long, very cold trip, even in the heated rental van, where we spent so many hours travelling. During those long hours driving north through drifting snow, my friend from Kitamaat told me the meaning of his community’s name, and how it was no longer a valley of snow in winter. So many trees had been lost to clear-cutting in the BC interior that weather patterns had changed, affecting the tiny coastal village in northern BC that he calls home. During those same hours, the Saulteaux artist from Saskatchewan told me how when she was a girl, the child welfare agency took her from her family and placed her in a white foster family in Regina. The foster family treated her as a servant. Eventually, she found where her own family was, and ran away.

Her removal from family was part of a federal government policy now called “the sixties scoop,” when the government removed up to 200,000 Indigenous and Métis children from their homes and placed them in foster care or adopted them into non-Native families.

I had heard about this before. When I was an 18-year-old student at a residential writing program in the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, I became friends with another student, Métis writer Joe Welsh. At the time, Joe was helping to reunite some of the “scooped” children with their home communities in Saskatchewan. Maybe he had been scooped himself, I never asked. I joined him for lunch one day – we drove into nearby Fort Qu’Appelle and met a teenaged boy at the only restaurant in town. My friend had helped bring this young Indigenous man back to Saskatchewan. He had been adopted into a family in the United States when he was a baby. He always thought his birth parents were “Japanese or something.” He was grateful to learn about his background, but he didn’t want to know more or become a part of the family he had lost. I remember that when we drove back to the school after lunch, my friend was very sad. I wonder how many children he helped reunite with their birth families. Or if that young man ever changed his mind.

On the trip to northern Quebec, we visited the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou. By the time we arrived there in mid-winter of 1991, the people had been forced to relocate seven times to make way for mining operations. The day we arrived, snow was billowing in the winter air and the land seemed deserted. We were met by a lone teenaged boy bundled in a snowsuit. The snow made it hard to see him as we walked toward a stand of houses. We were invited into the chief’s house – it was tiny – one room, I think, with an oil barrel in the centre that they used as a wood stove. It was very sparse, except for a new-looking television set. It looked so strange next to the oil barrel stove.

After many relocations, the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree won recognition from the government and were granted land for a new permanent village. It was built the year after we visited, in 1992, and was designed by the celebrated architect, Douglas Cardinal.

Sometime during our northern Quebec trip, we visited the site of a former residential school in La Tuque. One of the trip organizers,  Robert Ottereyes, was a Cree man from the James Bay community of Waswanipi. He attended the school in the 1970s—along with other Crees from James Bay, including Romeo Saganash, who is now the MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou. Saganash testified at one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s residential school hearing about his experiences, some of which were no doubt shared with my friend.1 He also addressed the House of Commons on reconciliation, saying “It is not possible to conceive of reconciliation in the absence of justice.”2

As a 21-year-old student, I learned for the first time about residential schools from my friend and schoolmate, Robert. As our group stood in front of the former La Tuque Indian Residential School on a cold winter day, Robert told us how when he attended the school he was not allowed to speak Cree and was called a “savage.”

I had heard Robert speak Cree with his wife and children, and heard other students speak it too. I remember Robert’s extended family welcoming us in Waswanipi, and our group sitting on a carpet of evergreen boughs inside a wigwam while our hosts roasted wild meat and cooked bannock for us. I remember how the soft green boughs smelled sweet and the gentle sound of Cree reminded me of how the wind can make ripples on a river, so the water flows forward, but also backward at the same time.

The Cree have different names for themselves, depending on where they live. The 18,000 Cree of northern Quebec, who are represented by the Grand Council of the Cree, or Eeyou Itscheee, call themselves Eeyouch (or sometimes Eenouch). They live in eastern James Bay and Southern Hudson Bay.

I have an N’lakapmux friend whose parents met in residential school in Lytton, BC. My friend Chris was raised by his mother who kept the family on the move, fearing her children would be scooped. Chris learned most of his language and culture from his grandparents. But all that is left are bits and pieces. If I compare it to a book, such as a family bible, handed down from generation to generation, it seems to me that his original culture is severely damaged – only fragments remain. As with so many different peoples, the BC Salish peoples (including the N’lakapmux) are engaging in a resurgence; a cultural and creative renaissance that combines aspects of their old traditions with contemporary perspectives, experiences and technologies.

I don’t think I’ve ever met an Indigenous person unaffected by residential school. If their own family did not attend, then their spouse’s family did, or their best friend’s. If not themselves, then their parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles. The memories of being stolen from home, forbidden to speak one’s mother tongue, of never having enough to eat – they hover like an angry grey cloud over individual survivors, communities and perhaps over our whole country.

The trauma of residential schools has risen to the surface of Canadian consciousness in the past few years. Perhaps two events have increased awareness the most. First, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools delivered a report on the lasting, negative effects on children who attended. The report concluded with 94 calls to action that offer Canadians and Indigenous people ways to transform the country. Second, the late Gord Downie, Tragically Hip frontman, worked in collaboration with other artists to produce The Secret Path project: an album, illustrated novel and performance about Chanie Wenjack, an Oji-Cree boy who ran away from residential school and died of exposure trying to find his way home.

The response by Canadians to this new awareness ranges from feelings of guilt for being part of a society that created these schools. Many talk of “moving on” and letting the past go. Some people seem uncomfortable and irritated as if the facts of history had become stuck like a fishbone in their throats. Others are in denial: the schools “weren’t so bad,” “Native people asked to be educated,” or “most people weren’t affected.”

On the other hand, a sizable number of settler Canadians express a longing to learn more about Indigenous cultures, to get to know the people, to make connections and grow.

In August 2017, I visited the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, near Six Nations, Ontario– the largest reserve in Canada, and a community where some members of all six nations of the Haudenosaunee live. Normally housed in the building that was once Brantford’s infamous Mohawk Institute – one of the longest-running and most abusive residential schools in Canada – the site is now being renovated to ensure the preservation of residential school history and the continuation of the cultural centre’s work promoting Indigenous arts and Haudenosaunee history. I bought a t-shirt to help raise funds for the renovations – it says, simply, “Save the evidence.”

When I posted online about my visit, my friend Robert misunderstood and thought the school was to be re-opened. I assured him that was not. It turns out that the Mohawk Institute was the first residential school he attended as a six-year-old child. The Mohawk Institute, also known as the “mush-hole” because of its terrible food, was over 1,000 kilometres from his home. Former Mohawk Institute resident Doug George-Kanentiio remembers my friend and other Crees: “Dozens of thin Cree boys stared at us, the newcomers. The Crees, the largest group at the institute, had been bused from hundreds of miles away, most from the James Bay region in Quebec. Their names were Happyjack, Otter, Gull, Ottereyes.”3

Brantford is in the heart of southwestern Ontario—lush and green in summer, a short drive from lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron. Waswanipi is the southernmost community in Eeyou Itschee territory—located southwest of James Bay, in northern Quebec, near big, deep lakes and forests where the Iiyiyuu (James Bay Cree) people still hunt and fish at their bush camps.


Even though over half of Indigenous people now live in urban areas 4, Canadians still associate Indigenous people with a capital ‘N’ Nature.

The stereotype goes like this: before settlers arrived here, the first peoples possessed a secret wisdom that allowed them to live on the land in perfect harmony with nature. In the modern world, this wisdom, this “true” Indigenous identity, has been lost. Whatever identity is left over is little more than decoration – wearing feathers and beads at powwows, using tobacco in ceremonies. Thomas King calls this stereotype the “dead Indian:”

“Dead Indians are, sometimes, just that. Dead Indians. But the Dead Indians I’m talking about are not the deceased sort. Nor are they all that inconvenient. They are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with Native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians.

What it sees are war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers.”

-from The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King

I wanted to conjure up this stereotype before exploring an aspect of Indigenous cultures that changed how I see Canada: freedom. Like the association with nature, settlers’ received idea about Indigenous peoples is often that they are (or were) more free than us, roaming the land, unencumbered by society’s constraints and laws, however mistaken the idea may be.

That said, I have sometimes felt a vast sense of freedom during time spent with Indigenous friends. Sometimes this feeling comes to me in the country, for example, when riding through the northern bush on the back of a ski-doo or eating wild food in a tipi, or sitting by the sacred fire at a powwow. But this feeling of being welcomed into an ever-turning, ever-expanding circle of friends has also come to me at my kitchen table while drinking tea with a Métis friend who dropped by to give me a birthday present – the feeling of receiving a gift from family, having tea with a cousin. Being included in a circle of kindness and laughter.

I see this freedom in the photo my friend Chris took of a coyote he spotted at the dumpsters behind Costco in Kamloops, BC. Chris finds sk’elep, the traditional trickster creature, digging in the garbage like the scavenger he is. No need for a backdrop of forest and mountains or even to leave the city.

As with sk’elep, the stories told about coyote are just as strong in the city as in the country. Stories that flourish in urban environments, adapting, just as coyotes always have, to the changing world. This freedom I’ve experienced is everywhere – bound up, in my mind, with the idea of “Indian country.” It seems to underpin Indigenous existence, making itself known in all the places inhabited by the peoples and cultures of this place. Sometimes Indian country reveals itself where you would expect it—at a powwow or in a healing circle. Other times, you feel it in a downtown pub, or during a conversation on the city bus. Settlers who experience this freedom are often changed. They connect to a place that is bigger than their country; glimpse the world that extends beyond what they previously knew. They begin to see Canada as a construct, a container that restrains us, where we change and grow in spite of it.

In the crazy world of settler colonialism, Indian Country has a specific meaning – at least in the United States. According to a legal dictionary, it includes “Land within an Indian reservation and all such other dependent Indian territories, and all land acquired by Indians in which tribal and federal laws normally apply and state laws do not.”

In my understanding of the concept, Indian Country includes the city, the country and every little town and village in between. The original peoples of this place are not dead or dying. They did not disappear and leave behind inauthentic shells. Their societies are evolving and changing, transforming and growing in urban and rural places. They are university professors, lawyers, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, parents, and yes, hunters who go out on their trap-lines.

In an article on Gord Downie, Ian Brown, a Globe and Mail writer, demonstrated the tendency to see Indigenous cultures as doomed and dying. At the end of an article in which he interviewed Downie, Brown talked about the Downie family’s plan to build a house for Gord in northern Ontario at Ogoki Post, next to the house of Chanie Wenjack’s sister, Pearl:

And if the house becomes a visiting artist’s residence after Gord dies, one of a future string of such houses on indigenous lands across the country financed by the [Downie Wenjack] fund, well, Mike Downie is a guy with a lot of ideas. Until then, Gord says, “I need to see my kids, so I’ll go back and forth. I dream about it, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Because of the feeling you get when you go up there. The people I’ve met, they’re so beautiful.” Which is another way of saying they don’t judge you, because they too know what it’s like to face extinction.

What happens next, by Ian Brown, the Globe and Mail, October 21, 2016

In Brown’s view, the common ground between Gord Downie and Pearl Achneepineskum is that they both face death and extinction. And yet Brown writes this immediately after he quotes Downie saying, “The people I’ve met, they’re so beautiful.”

Perhaps Brown has not experienced the beauty that Downie loved so much. Maybe he only knows the tattered, worn-out story of the “dead Indian,” so he isn’t open to a different understanding, not even when one of Canada’s greatest poets offers it as a possibility.

I’m still wrestling with the question of why I care if Indigenous people flourish and succeed. Or why it angers me that some Canadians can’t see past stereotypes. This freedom I have tried to describe—it’s fundamental to this land. Settlers came here and made a home, but for the most part, we haven’t put down roots. The nature of this place is different from the countries we came from, and we don’t really understand it. The stories from here are still told: creation stories; stories about the raven and coyote; about Sky Woman; Hiawatha, the founder of the Haudenosaunee; depictions of deep relationships with other living beings very different from what we have known. Some of these stories are probably told every day all over our country—written in books and honoured in works of art. But they are not our stories.

Four hundred years ago, the Haudenosaunee used a story to propose a relationship between settlers and their confederacy using the two-row wampum. It shows settlers in one canoe and the Haudenosaunee in another. The two peoples travel side by side, never interfering with each other, surrounded by a sea of peace and friendship.

This relationship envisioned by the two-row wampum didn’t materialize because settlers engaged in a campaign of cultural annihilation against the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous peoples. Banning languages, cultures and religions, shipping children to residential schools, stealing land and imposing the reserve and blood quantum systems. And yet the old stories, along with new Indigenous stories, are still being told every day.

It’s a wonder. It’s like finding coyote behind Costco. Still here, following old lifelines and creating new ones. But after hundreds of years of betrayal, how can settlers ever belong here? Why should coyote trust us? Why should the Kanien’kehá:ka (people of the flint) or the Eenouch (human beings) or the Haisla (dwellers downriver) welcome us? Where do we go from here?

We have lived the same way for hundreds of years: strangers to the original people of this land we call Canada. Many settlers will protest this idea, but some who have experienced the powerful cultural forces of Indigenous peoples and communities will not find the assertion strange in the least.

So, freedom.

I am not drawn to Indigenous peoples and cultures because of a romantic notion of the “Indian” – the one described so well by Tom King. I have no desire to keep that broken, worn-out meme of the dead or disappearing Indian alive. I’m attracted to the positive: vibrant cultures with many educated and successful people who have not lost their identities despite settlers’ best efforts to remake Indigenous peoples in our own image. Survivors, creators, influencers.

And alongside, a deep and powerful force that connects all living things and is unique to this continent, this place. A force bigger than the widest the sky on the clearest day; deeper than the coldest, most mysterious lake; warmer and more loving than anything I’ve experienced from Canadian society and its institutions.

I admit this perspective is idealistic. I apologize for it: For evoking that sublime place, Indian Country. Because you won’t find it on a map and you’ll never be able to measure or apportion it. It can’t be sold off as private property. I know that what’s needed is to move beyond associating Indigenous nations with a magical reality where an unverifiable freedom becomes manifest. Especially since all these cultures are unique and cannot really be understood as one “Indigenous” people or nation.

So yes, the freedom, the feeling of the sublime, the glimpse of another reality altogether–a house that is the domicile of all our houses, the home fire that warms every home. A powerfully moving reality that has shifted the way I see my country and the world and the way I inhabit both.

But let me push all of this to the side. The peoples of this land (with all their different names and lifeways) need the chance to simply be ordinary- even boring. It’s easy for us settlers to idealize others, but hard for us to just let things be. Not worshipping or trying to fix things. Maybe even staying out of the way, if that can be imagined. It’s the one thing we have never done.

We need real, concrete change in the form of a fairer distribution of land and resources and respect for the self-determination.

But I have asked myself why I care about this subject and that is why: because of the magic that permeates cornfields in summer, and the mesmerizing beat of the drums under the pines in one of my favourite places—Kanehsatà:ke. Because of laughter over a pint of beer late at night and the golden colour of bannock sliding from the cast-iron pan. Because of hugs and gifts and places to stay and receiving more than I could ever give from people who often have little material wealth.


I went paddling on the Grand River near Six Nations, Ontario with my family in August of 2018. We hired a guide, a woman from Hamilton who can track animals in the bush and paddle rivers and lakes much more challenging than the Grand in late summer. The company she works for is collaborating with Six Nations to start an Indigenous-owned and -run paddling business that would offer tours of the Grand, teaching visitors about the animal and plant life from a Haudenosaunee point of view.

The Mohawks and other Haudenosaunee nations have lived on or near the Grand River for centuries. We paddled past a site that was once an annual settling place for people from Six Nations. The Grand River was first settled by Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, who was joined by other Mohawks and eventually other Six Nations people. 5

As part of her job, our guide teaches paddlers about the river and the history Haudenosaunee people who continue to live nearby. To do this, she and her colleagues have visited Six Nations to learn about Haudenosaunee history as it relates to the river.

Her attitude towards this aspect of her job gives me hope. She is open to learning and is well aware that her understanding of the history is only a beginning. She says that she is not able to tell the stories in the same way as her teachers—getting the meaning of the stories right. Even ten years ago, this willingness to learn might have been unusual.

As for why Indigenous peoples, including the Kanien’kehá:ka, the Iiyiyuu, the N’lakapmux, the Haisla or any other nation should trust us, I would say that while Canada the nation-state can’t be trusted to uphold the best interests of Indigenous peoples, we can find hope and possibilities among individual people who live here.

The relationship between settler Canadians and the peoples who preceded us here is a bit like paddling the Grand River in early August. The water levels are trending downwards in late summer, as part of the river’s natural cycle. In a kayak, this means you need to read the river, especially in the shallow parts, where the shape of the waves tells you where rocks are hidden just beneath the surface. As you navigate the many rapids, you keep an eye on the water up ahead to avoid an accident and at the same time, scan the banks for a chance to glimpse a blue heron or a group of starlings.

You see people going by, trying to steer a canoe from the front, or floating aimlessly in an inner tube with no life jacket and you give them wide berth. They haven’t entered into any kind of relationship with the river yet. They probably need to fall out and be washed away downstream once or twice. Or maybe start listening to the guides paddling among them, calling out warnings and offering them a chance to start a friendship.


What is reconciliation: the burden of proof

A narrative I hear again and again, spoken in anger:

Nowadays, everybody thinks they should get special treatment. Immigrants want to keep their religion and speak all these different languages—I mean, isn’t French bad enough? And young people! They don’t even know if they’re male or female. And they expect to get everything without working for it. To have their cake and eat it too. Who doesn’t want that? It’s the same with the Natives. They want to bulldoze peoples’ homes so they can make their reserves bigger. What with their houses falling apart and not one of them willing lift a hammer to fix anything. Why don’t they pay taxes like everyone else? Did you know, they have healing circles for criminals? Why should Natives get sentenced to a healing circle? Wouldn’t we all like to get off easy? Those drunk kids who overran that hard-working farmer’s land and threatened his family probably think they’ll get a healing circle. So one of them gets shot. What do they expect? You can’t go breaking into private property. They act like the land belongs to them. Like we should take down all the fences. Change the laws and have different ones for Natives. Give them a free ride. There is only one set of laws, one set of rules. They apply to everyone.

What is reconciliation: the burden of proof

On the trial of Colten Boushie, the boy from Red Pheasant First Nation:

At the trial for the boy who was shot by the farmer, everyone obeyed one set of laws. They all laboured under the burden of proof – some hoping for evidence strong enough to withstand it and others hoping for collapse. The prosecution presented hard evidence, but some of it never got to court: blood spatter and gun powder residue were left to wash away in a summer downpour: the police omitted to throw even a tarp over the truck where the victim died. 1 But the farmer’s Tokarev pistol, a cold war collector’s item, and photos of blood spilling out of the SUV were presented, as well as images of the boy shot in the head. And then testimony: a defendant admitting to shooting the young man, Colten Boushie, but by accident, a freak accident. The hard evidence that survived—difficult pictures of blood, a cold steel pistol—did not withstand the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Certain facts of the case were presented to a jury of 12 Canadians, none of them (apparently) Indigenous, each bearing their own histories and responsibilities. Like all of us, they could see only so far in a world obscured by assumptions and blind spots, gaps in knowledge. These citizens were asked to pass one of three possible judgments: second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty. Gerald Stanley, the farmer, the shooter, was acquitted and walks free and Colten Boushie, the boy who trespassed, is dead and buried: one set of laws and one set of rules, applied to everyone.




What is reconciliation: Introduce yourself

Reconciliation is so far away. Now is not the right time. We are miles and miles apart, even though we live next door. How do we move closer? How to begin at the beginning? Hello, my name is. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

An RCMP officer banged on the door of a trailer to tell Colten Boushie’s mom that her son had been killed. “He is deceased,” the officer said. Officers came into her trailer and searched it. Opened all the doors and cupboards. Meanwhile, Colten’s mother collapsed on the floor. “Ma’am, get yourself together,” the officer said. “Ma’am, have you been drinking?” He smelled her breath. Asked Colten’s brothers, “Have you been drinking?”

Gerald Stanley, the farmer who shot Colten, didn’t know him. He used a Russian semi-automatic handgun, a relic from the Cold War, in the conflict between settlers and first peoples. Stanely seems to have felt only coldness and fear. He didn’t ask, “Where are you from? How do you do?” The kids in the pickup truck didn’t ask either. No one sat down and introduced themselves.

Almost 200 years ago my mother’s family settled in the bush north of Quebec City. They survived by raising chickens and growing vegetables. Cutting wood. Earning a few dollars here and there.

Margaret McKeown, my grandmother, kept a rifle in her bedroom. When drunk fishermen came to the house to steal farming equipment, tools – anything not nailed down – she filled the gun with rock salt, opened the window, shot them in their behinds and watched them run away.

Would the RCMP officer have helped Colten’s mother up, made her tea and held her hand if he could have seen her as a mom? If we don’t know each other, there is nothing to reconcile, only hard words and stony ground. Walls with no doorways leading through. No garden on the other side, where we could walk together.

I know of a town and a reserve. The mayor and his son went on a canoe trip with the chief and his son. They travelled together on a rushing river, adventuring to a place they had never been. It was part of their process of creating. Building a community centre, a hockey rink. Something that wasn’t there before. Making a place where strangers can sit side by side and ask, “How are you?”

Rock salt may hurt like hell. But a Tokarev semi-automatic kills (or maims). The absence of knowing each other brings the bullet through the window of the truck. The problem is always the same and keeps repeating: Gerald Stanley’s wife says “That’s what you get for trespassing on private property.” Colten’s family says “We share the land. To say they killed him for trespassing means they violated the Treaty. Nobody owns the land.”

We are side by side in this place of stories – some shared, some growing out of this old land, belonging to no one. It is not the right time. It is the only time. How do we get close enough to hear the stories, be claimed by them and find ourselves changed?


Details taken from the following Globe and Mail article: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/colten-boushie/article32451940/

What is reconciliation? Purple and white

In this life I’ve felt a touch, whispering of cloth against my skin; big sky flowing over me, an endless blanket of twinkling lights, round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, I’ve walked at night in a stand of pines; the forest is small, but trees become deep and endless in darkness, and I wander there. I once found a clearing where women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in the pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under branches of jack pines, on ground covered with soft, scented needles; round and round to the distant sound of drums.

In this country I’ve walked forests where leaves and needles sway softly, walked under spruce, pine, cedar, tamarack, maple, poplar, birch—walked over clear cuts too, over charred ground, as far as my eyes could see, with a shovel in my hand and saplings in my pockets. In northern B.C., near Cranberry River junction, I watched the sun set at nearly 11 o’clock, listened at night for the sounds of Cranberry River as I lay in my tent. But I never heard or saw it, only imagined the water, narrow and fast-running, bubbling over rocks, fed by cold melting snow running into a rocky bed every spring season, a river descending, always southward.

When I was a girl, I snowshoed in the forest on my grandparents’ land with my Grandpa, under the pine and spruce boughs. I watched him haul out logs, stood nearby as he cut and split them for firewood to heat the big cast iron stove in the kitchen, where a kettle of water always simmered, ready for tea. My grandparents had a swing set across from the old house, and in summer, I would swing as high as I could, watching the sun glint on the tin roof of their home, feeling the coolness of dark evergreens rising behind me. Toward sunset, the mosquitoes would bite my cousins and I as we flew back and forth, watching the sun descend, glinting on the thousands of smooth round stones mixed in the sand and soil of the driveway.

In the city there are pathways too, places where you can wear down the asphalt; I’ve added my footsteps along routes near my house, my boots rising and falling to the rhythm of rush hour traffic. I’ve packed down snow in winter and added my breath, smoky vapour in the freezing air. The big city feels small sometimes—for all its steel and concrete, at times it seems like little more than clusters of houses and office towers hunching along a southern border. Canada, our vast and powerful country, clinging tenuously to warmth and light, while our sleep is disturbed by dreams of driving off the road into darkness, of unexpected blizzards that bury us in snow drifts, of sitting there behind the wheel, frozen and silent until spring. Sometimes we dream of twisting roads leading to nowhere, of rutted gravel ending at the sites of closed down uranium and diamond mines, or an empty oil field, or a vast patch of razed ground. The truth is we only want a little bit of the wild, not too much. It reminds us painfully of all we’ve stolen from the land to feed our cities; of how we can’t manage there, or survive. We just want to live in safety, wrapped in our country Canada, that place of peace, order and good government.

The stand of pines where the drums reverberate, where I’ve walked at night, belongs to a people, the Onkwehonwe people at Kanehsatà:ke, every tree top and root, every needle-covered path. When I walk there it feels like someone’s home, like you could stand all night in a clearing where the moonlight washes over the branches, and pours over our heads, as mosquitoes bite us and the coolness of the woods drifts down upon us.  I’d give it all up, the comfortable, polite neighbourhoods, the friendly faces of Canadians, the peacekeepers, our smug satisfaction. I’d give up the dream and cross over, follow the river currents in my memory. Extend my hands and feel the weight of wampum beads pressing into my skin, the weight of broken treaties, the smoothness of purple and white beads, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship once offered. But I’m still wandering each day further away from my old home and onto the land; out of Canada and into the world, wide-open places, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.

What is reconciliation? What the man says

Once a man said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.” He mentioned my creativity to shove in the knife and twist it. But he’s a politically correct man; used to saying the right things to the right people. Helping to lift the world up through his righteousness. He’s not quiet and doesn’t seem soft.

Each year, delicate creatures migrate across the hemisphere to arrive here. They know how to find safe places to rest. They avoid his hands and shoulders; never land on the top of his head. Too much risk to their paper-thin wings.

I meet men who say the wrong things and don’t know it, but still, try to make offerings. Open themselves to being on the wrong side of the argument, though they are baffled by this world. In their uncertainty, they stop and notice. Something light and hesitant has landed, just for a moment before flying away.

What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. He casts them out, they strike and on the rebound, start to make sense. They pick up grit and dirt from skittering on roads. Bits of wood from striking against walls and glancing off trees. Words and strings of words: constellations and courage; Newfoundland dogs, a great black plate of ice. Something called winterfighter in Thompson, Manitoba, breezes turning to rivulets and treasures buried, the Paris of the prairies.

If his words come to you, they may create an image in your mind’s eye, a feeling in your heart about living here, on this land and in the city, with your feet on the street, under trees and streetlamps, beneath satellites that circle around the world and back to you.

He offered poems and songs for our country’s trove of treasures and courage along the way. Sparks from a campfire, leaving behind flames that smoulder and catch on, enter our imagination and make us see things from the outside – bigger, more mysterious.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and fears they will make no sense. But you are alert and quick, so you catch them, close your hands before they hurtle onward. You feel them bouncing against your palms, see light sparkling through openings in your fingers. The energy of words seeps through your skin, helping you understand the country, the people, your own heart. The words slow down and become softer – like a goose feather that drifts into your hand, or milkweed that flutters around your feet as you wander a field behind your house.

It was urgent for him to get the words out, to use them all up, so he sent them hurtling. But really, he only needed open his hands and blow softly to release his butterfly of wings and meanings. We were always there, holding out our hands, waiting for them to brush our palms.

Now his work is over. He left a job for the reconcilers: to be gentle and quiet so that as a dragonfly, an idea might alight and emerge. A thought about being more tender with one another. So that when words and songs take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, they will encounter listeners, who hear and understand, and are made gentle by them.

What is reconciliation? The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

What is reconciliation? The chasm

Living in reality
We can endure your cages you bullets
Your lies your confusion
We know you have destroyed your peace
Living in reality you only exist

-John Trudell

For such a long time, settlers and our government have been doing the same thing over and over. We repeat and repeat the same patterns until they become the fabric of our life and seem like reality itself. In this reality, some people love peace, order and good government and some do not: the angry ones, the people from whom we stole the land. The ones whose languages and cultures we tried to kill off. The people we betrayed. Our betrayal is our sorrow and tragedy, buried deep within us—the wound of our country. But this fabric, this injured country, seems like our only choice. As if our way of life is the best one possible and theft and violence were the only means of creating it. Canada. Peace, order and good government. Peacekeepers, diplomats and nice polite travellers are our faces to the world.

Yet consider how we arrived in this present: by refusing to share the land. By signing treaties with our predecessors and breaking them, or misunderstanding (on purpose) the agreements we signed. By taking the land without offering even the promise of compensation. What is now called “Crown land”.  The unceded traditional territories of all the people who lived here first and still live here now.

We parcel this land into lots for houses, roads and industry. We clear-cut, mine and drill for oil in the vast regions. What little is left over we turn into national parks, where we manage the wildlife – counting species of fish, birds and other animals. In parks, we dictate where visitors may walk or swim or pitch a tent. Whatever is left over after that is for Indigenous peoples—we allot 0.2% of the land to 5% of the population 1.

More often now, we hear voices demanding the Canadian government acknowledge that most Canadian land is unceded territory. These voices are getting louder. Our country is filled with histories and life-ways that have existed for as long as anyone can remember. Lands and waters that defy management, that science and technology cannot account for. We try to dismiss these voices or discredit them – these other nations within our borders. We continue to build houses in disputed territories, in places such as the Mohawk community of Kanehsatà:ke in Quebec and on the Haldimand land tract at the Iroquois community of Six Nations in Ontario. We surround communities with heavy industry, such as the Chippewa people of Aamjiwnaang First Nation who are hemmed in on all sides by the oil and gas refineries and chemical plants of Sarnia, Ontario’s “chemical alley”:  home to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry 2.

To ensure the success of our Canadian project, we place a higher value on our settler lives than we do on Indigenous lives. We don’t always know we are doing this, because we know so little about the Mohawks and the Chippewas and other nations, like the Nlaka’pamux people of Coldwater First Nation in Merrit, BC. A bitumen pipeline runs through the middle of their reserve. Now Kinder Morgan wants to build a new pipeline directly over the community’s main water source. The people have said no. The chief of Coldwater First Nation says: “For us it’s not about the politics, but the future of our community and ensuring we have access to clean, safe water.” 3  The Prime Minister of Canada says, “We are one country. The federal government is there to ensure that the national interest is upheld.” 4 He has promised that Alberta bitumen will reach the west coast by the Trans Mountain pipeline, no matter what.

In the past, we hid the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures – we ensured that our children did not learn about residential schools or the banning of Indigenous languages and ceremonies. Now, as parts of the truth come out, we blame our actions on the ignorance of the past – back then, we did not know better than to separate children from their parents; we thought teaching them Christian ways would make them more like us. That some children starved or died of TB, or that certain nuns and priests abused the children is unfortunate. We have said we are sorry for trying to “kill the Indian in the child.” 5 But our ancestors lived in a harsher, crueller world. We can’t be held responsible for it. We had not yet achieved our current state of peacefulness and kindness – we were not fully Canadian.

Nowadays, we sometimes allow the old songs and stories of this place to be told, though we often try to orchestrate them. We want everyone to know how open and accepting we are. We are sure it would be much better for Indigenous people to settle their differences our way, under the power of the Crown and through our justice system, though it tips most often in our favour.

And so we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed, how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.

And we make yet more promises we do not keep – of clean drinking water or equal funding for education. We show respect by calling the first peoples “Indigenous” instead of “Indians.” Before that, it was “Aboriginal,” “First Nations” or “Native.” But the empty words we speak don’t change the fact that we are creating a dystopia, a chasm opening up between us. In this chasm, we are strangers on the land – we become lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. It is a place full of thorns and dead ground.

As time passes, the chasm grows wider until it seems the only way to cross –  to reacquaint ourselves with this place –  is to lose ourselves: to walk off the map and leave behind the marked trails; to search the land’s deepest places for the overgrown winding route – the path our ancestors walked before we settlers made enemies of the Onkwehón:we 6 (the original people). Before we forgot how to be Onkwehón:we.  

We’ve been thinking and acting like settlers for so long we no longer think this place (this land we call Canada) could seep in and grow through us, green and alive. We are sure that it could never be so vast. That starlight cannot sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves, turning the deep green pine needles to shades of blue.

We might still dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, but it is only dreaming. We may, in our dreams, sit by a window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. We might hear someone else who is outside in the night, singing in a soft voice from their yard. See the golden square of their window, lit up. Hear the sound of coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We may suspect that we are not the only ones. If only we could remember these things, if only we could still know them when we wake from dreaming.


What is reconciliation? Visiting Waswanipi

I left my country and entered another. After driving a long time on winter roads, we crossed the border. Slowly, the language began to change, until iiyiyuu ayimuun, James Bay Cree, took over completely. When I looked out the window at endless snow, it was all familiar, roads and rooftops covered in white, but it belonged to another land. When we finished driving and stepped onto the ground, my feet sank into white snow and we were encircled by a village of snug houses. We followed behind a woman wearing snowshoes until the path led us to an outdoor shelter, where we sat on a bed of cedar branches and warmed ourselves by the heat of an oil barrel stove. We ate beaver, goose and ptarmigan. Beaver roasting and crackling on a spit and bannock turning golden in a cast iron pan. The language of the Eeyou Istchee was the lingua franca, with English or French difficult to speak. Outside, winter was fierce and my coat from down south was like a sweater. I sat close to the hot barrel stove and smelled the wood smoke and fat of roasting meat; listened to the hum of people talking; felt the softness of cedar; the roar of a snowmobile in the distance. Outside, I knew the sky would be pure blue and the pines and firs, dark green. Elsewhere it was February, but there it was another country.

– in memory of Robert Ottereyes

What is reconciliation: The open door

-for Jesse Thistle

When you say you are sorry (from your heart), you open the door to a room within. A cool, peaceful space where breezes blow in the half-open window and green leaves brush against the glass. You enter and sit in your chair and yellow sun slants across your face, and there are no distractions. You’ve begun to understand pain – being hurt and hurting others. You’ve started to make space for  it, and as a consequence, find yourself here in this room where pain can live side by side with your heart. You have forgiven yourself.

When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children practicing their language. Hear them running in and out of the house, playing hide and seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own; mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.

What is reconciliation? Memory of stones

Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering on in windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing on the highest balcony, I saw smoke drifting up and lights coming on: streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars, as I stood there with my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat in winter—where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him just after he had put the campfire out. His cabin was near a place called Silent Lake, not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm when summer is coming.

Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds: the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatà:ke invited the Northern Irish to speak to them of their struggles, so much like home—disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire, soldiers and police guarding all rights of way, armed checkpoints on the roads.1 Gerry Adams spoke at the university in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, my friends and I were invited by an IRA supporter to have a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.

Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land covered in sage and short grasses. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by a campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky—it went on and on forever. There I remembered the campfire in the woods at Silent Lake and the story of the owl. I remembered campfires among the trees in Kanehsatà:ke during the pow wow—everywhere I walked, the sound of drums and strumming guitars. I thought of Easter 1916 and how the Good Friday agreement in 1998 2 completed a circle. Near my friend’s home on the prairies, we listened to the crackling fire and talked about how medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. We thought of how we were sitting under a slowly spinning night. Under the wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.

What is reconciliation? Sk’elep speaks

Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…

– Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. Picture in your mind’s eye an Indian agent driving through town, opening the door of his truck and snatching a child from the road, to spirit him away over a thousand miles to residential school. As you imagine the scene you may be in a safe place, such as your home or a café. Or on a train taking you to school or work. Unlike the child, you board the train willingly, whether following a familiar route or going on an adventure.

When the children board the train, it is icy cold and strange. They are all alone, without Mum or Dad or Grandma. The train conductor knows this—he’s done this run before, driving the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of frightened children, crying for their family. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into moonless sky. The train conductor hears the small voices and remembers them always1.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. Sound the alarm. Send out search parties and shine lights in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communication lines growing taut with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high running through darkness of the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see sk’elep howling. I can’t tell if he feels rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Sk’elep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at powwows, as fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but sk’elep always sings at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977. Sk’elep or coyote is the traditional trickster figure in the pantheon of Secwepemc mythology.