What is reconciliation? Reading the river

Grand 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.


  1. MP Roméo Saganash testifies at residential school hearing https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/04/26/mp_romo_saganash_testifies_at_residential_school_hearing.html
  2. For the record: Romeo Saganash on residential schools https://www.macleans.ca/politics/for-the-record-romeo-saganash-on-residential-schools
  3. www.brantfordexpositor.ca/2007/12/14/his-friend-died-fleeing-from-the-mushhole
  4. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/171025/dq171025a-eng.htm
  5. Brant decided that he preferred to settle on the Grand River north of Lake Ontario. Mohawk of the Upper Castle joined him in settling on the Grand River, as did bands of the other Six Nations.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Nations_of_the_Grand_River

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