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

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.