The politicians in this place we call Canada have taken hold of the term reconciliation, using it in the House of Commons, in media appearances, 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 (TRC). A commission that is in turn related to many other similar commissions, in countries such as 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 TRC’s work—first-person testimonies, historical photographs and documents, the final report and calls to action—means that the Canadian government has done its due diligence in funding the TRC and can now dispense 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 TRC focused on residential schools, delving into only one of the crimes committed against Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian government.
But focusing on reconciliation lets government and business get on with things and put the past behind them.
This language—“moving on,” “putting the past behind us” is common among people who have experienced trauma, especially when they don’t recognize it as such. This is because we, 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 to drain an infection with no anesthesia.
And besides, politicians and corporations want to avoid doing this for reasons that go beyond avoiding pain. It can be dangerous to go digging into history—it can de-stabilize the present; undermine the world. It threatens to the nation-state, its very rich corporate allies and the comforting stories many people tell themselves about Canada, about how everything’s turned out for the best; how Canada is the most peaceful nation on earth.
So, before any real reconciliation, there must be much more searching for and finding the truth—truth manifests itself as pain and disfigurement just below the surface of this country. In reaction to this reality, some people act out in anger and fear, not able or willing to face any threat to their picture of reality. They have no idea what treaties mean to some Indigenous nations, or why people would defend their land instead of profiting from its development. So, they burn effigies of Indigenous People at demonstrations, throw rocks, assault Indigenous women. Does their hatred come from a mistaken belief 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 start to unravel the pain, pour water on the raging fire that’s been burning them up for generations?
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.
For the most part, people living in Canada don’t know about the shared history between Indigenous Peoples and settlers, so they repeat and repeat the same mistakes, get the same results and never learning from them. Sometimes the Canadian government steps out of the pattern of imposing its will on Indigenous nations and enters into true two-way relationships, Implementing, together, 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 that the first colonizers “discovered” were 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 Indigenous Peoples as less than human? The legacy 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 devoted to turning profits any way they can.
A truly depressing picture of Canada. But 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 transform 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 is a sign of hope. 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 to our painful shared history, we begin to recuperate the joy and wholeness we’ve been seeking all along.
- 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