What is reconciliation? Face in the mirror

Wolves running in snow

The picture had not changed. It was folly to think so. Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, and would alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness.

-A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Reconciliation is an aside, a notion that will fall away and cease to matter once (or if ever) our ignorance falls away–if the scales fall from our eyes and our ears and our hearts open up, our hearts becoming bigger, capable of more compassion, able to hold more love. If we peel away the scabs that have grown over the wound at the heart of this place, Canada. Every time the wound bleeds, we treat it just enough so it closes over again and we can forget about it. Get on with business as usual. Look to the future; increase our wealth and influence in the world. Oftentimes, we are completely unaware of the pain and disfigurement just below the surface and we act out in anger and fear, not knowing the source–the weeping sore beneath our skin. The same as not knowing your history–if you don’t know it, you are doomed to repeat it.

And for the most part, we don’t know our history and so we repeat and repeat the same mistakes, get the same results but never learn from them. Sometimes we step out of the pattern of imposing our will on Indigenous nations and enter into true two-way relationships. We implement, together, agreements that are more bilateral and both parties come away better off.

So it’s a mixed thing. Some of us Canadians are learning the history and seeing Canada differently–questioning its existence as it is today. We repudiate the pernicious ideas at the heart of our colonial history–that only Europeans were fully human and everyone else that we “discovered” was less than human. One of the earliest doctrines to articulate this idea is the Doctrine of Discovery 1, 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 foundation? What does it do to us as a people and as individuals, to live in a society made possible by treating the people who preceded us as less than human? The legacy of this doctrine is, among other things, the reserve system, the crisis in child welfare, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, multi-generational trauma caused by residential schools, including loss of identity leading to 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, misplaced immigrants. An urgency to save ourselves from growing environmental disaster and collapse, from living in a world solely ruled by institutions almost exclusively devote to turning profits any way they can.

A truly depressing picture of Canada, the west and even the world. But I would not have written this exploration of our relationship if I had no hope. And I have 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 and their family’s and sometimes their communities’ lives–pushing back against ignorance and fear. And many settlers are learning about our shared history and understanding better why we need to change our relationship with each other, in order to change the trajectory of our society as a whole. And I have hope that the Canadian government has committed to implementing the UNDRIP and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery by removing its influence from our laws and policies. Just the fact that these are even on the table. Although some of what we end up with will be inadequate and watered down. And maybe we’ve heard all this before.

Progress is slow and unfolds along a twisting, difficult-to-discern path. But at least we are on the path. We are catching a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror of truth and seeing the ugly parts. But at least we are seeing them. And starting to make room for the part of the story that we have always wanted to forget. But the story told in its entirety, is breathtaking in beauty, courage and hope. By opening ourselves to our painful history, we begin to recuperate the joy and wholeness we’ve been seeking all along; begin to finally become a country and a people.

  1. The Doctrine of Discovery provided a framework for Christian explorers, in the name of their sovereign, to lay claim to territories uninhabited by Christians. If the lands were vacant, then they could be defined as “discovered” and sovereignty claimed. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/christopher-columbus-and-the-doctrine-of-discovery-5-things-to-know

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