Reconciliation: What’s next?

March 11, 2020

reconciliation pic

Since the issue of Wet’suwet’en land rights and title has landed where it truly belongs—in a discussion amongst the Wet’suwet’en people themselves, the only ones who ought to be determining the relationship between hereditary and elected leadership—I’ve done some more reflecting on the meaning of “reconciliation,” a word that’s been thrown around a lot during the ongoing Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute.

Last month, I was in Ottawa on business when I happened to drop in on one of the many rallies being held that same day across the country. The text I saw on one of the banners confirmed that a slogan, first used at the B.C. blockades a few days earlier, had gone viral: #ReconciliationIsDead. As a white settler ally for Indigenous rights, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat browbeaten by that slogan. As both a recovered Roman Catholic for whom the term “reconciliation” has continued resonance and a communications professional who knows a good bit of spin doctoring when he sees it, I found its verdict a little premature.

A simple Google search defines “reconciliation” as “the restoration of friendly relations” or “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” In Canada, the term refers to actions that must be taken by non-Indigenous Canadians and their governments in order to restore “friendly relations” with Indigenous peoples and make the structures and policies of Canada more “compatible with” the laws and traditions of Indigenous peoples. Obviously, an RCMP incursion on unceded territory and the forceful dismantling of blockades put up to defend it represent the kind of actions that inspired the call for reconciliation in the first place. But how many Indigenous people would declare reconciliation “dead” based on a single case, never mind the most recent one?

First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have endured centuries of injustice by white settlers and their state and corporate institutions. The whole point of reconciliation is that it’s incremental—a work in progress—and, on the long and torturous road to historical redress, recent years have produced good results. So should one invasive police action destroy all that? Should one failure to consult erase all progress to date and make all future efforts toward reconciliation impossible? Obviously not. While we ought to recognize the serious pain and legacy of oppression that inspired #ReconciliationIsDead among Indigenous people who embrace the slogan, it would be tragic if non-Indigenous Canadians abandoned the ideal in a cynical response to pipelines. Using “reconciliation” to bolster one side of the eco-wars only serves to undermine the power of this concept, diminishing its value as a universal principle we all ought to observe.

A (recent) history lesson

This fall, it will be five years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report with recommendations on how to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The genius of the TRC’s work, as overseen by Justice Murray Sinclair, is reflected in the broad scope of its 94 calls to action. Expanding beyond the TRC’s original mandate—to redress the culturally genocidal legacy of residential schools—the calls to action addressed virtually every aspect of Canadian society that produces negative results for Indigenous peoples: from inadequate provision of health care and education to the legal and justice systems that racially profile Indigenous men and boys while ignoring the rape, murder and/or disappearance of Indigenous women and girls.

I remember when the TRC’s final report came out in 2015. I especially recall the gravitas of Justice Sinclair’s presence, the spellbinding impact of his presentation, at the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ national convention in Vancouver that fall. A video screened during his guest appearance featured moments from the Commission hearings in which survivors shared accounts of their own rape, and other forms of child abuse, at the hands of their supposed guardians. Scanning the convention hall and its two thousand delegates I saw people utterly rapt, tears streaming down their faces. There wasn’t a sound but the anguished cry of those survivors’ voices. I recall thinking: perhaps Canadian society has arrived at one of those moments where a new chapter in history might be written. Those 94 calls to action, after all, were not just for government. They were for “those who can effect change” in the many parts of society that determine human outcomes. The legal and medical professions. Schools and universities. Churches. Social organizations. Unions. For any Canadian who came into contact with that TRC document, really, the implied message was: “It’s up to you.”

Unfortunately, it has taken a while for some of us to get the memo. During that first year or so after the final report’s release, I bore witness as more than a few Indigenous people grew impatient having to explain to fecklessly entitled white people, for the umpteenth time, why it wasn’t the responsibility of Indigenous people to right all the wrongs (“We can’t reconcile with ourselves,” one memorably put it); that it was settler Canadians, especially white folk, who needed to do the reconciling. Sure, Indigenous people can educate and inform. But it’s up to the rest of us to do the heavy lifting of redress so that one day there can be better relations.

Good things did happen in the wake of the TRC report. Today there is greater awareness among the general public of the many ways that First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures enrich Canada, thanks to increased visibility of Indigenous peoples both in presenting their culture within its own context and in their participation in mainstream culture and society. There are more opportunities in education and employment for Indigenous people than ever before, and Indigenous language is being revived in many communities. According to an Ipsos-Reid poll released last month, public opposition to blockades was mitigated by the finding that three-quarters of Canadians want Ottawa to act immediately to improve the quality of life for Indigenous peoples—12 per cent up from 2013.

But there is still a great deal of ignorance among non-Indigenous Canadians about the history and contemporary workings of our colonial systems of government, law enforcement and justice. Too many of us don’t have a clue that the colonial mindset, in the service of keeping things the same, continues to have profoundly negative impacts on Indigenous lives. Not even mass media coverage of last year’s final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls made a difference in that regard. The report highlighted the “economic, social and political marginalization, racism, and misogyny” that Indigenous women and girls continue to face across Canada. Notwithstanding that positive Ipsos-Reid poll result mentioned above, systemic oppression is still “woven into the fabric of Canadian society.”

A look in the mirror

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First Nations protest on Parliament Hill, 1981.

The elephant in Canada’s room is that our polite society is and always has been a racist one. Extreme prejudice of the hateful or violent sort is mostly confined to social media, but there’s been no shortage of that since the Wet’suwet’en dispute began. Sadly, this ugly dark underbelly of our body politic tends to crawl out from under its rock every time a major incident of Indigenous pushback (Oka, Gustafson Lake, Ipperwash, Idle No More, the killing of Coulton Boushie) challenges the status quo. But confronting and marginalizing that kind of racism is relatively easy. What’s harder to acknowledge is that Canadian racism is, by and large, unconsciously paternalistic and deeply embedded. It’s everywhere.

When Indigenous people tell us uncomfortable truths in disturbing ways—shocking us, say, by pointing out our ignorance or even arrogance when we unknowingly cause offense—it affronts our entitled sense of decorum. Deep down we know our defensiveness is problematic, but we can’t face it. It’s so much easier to gaze southward and shake our heads self-righteously at anti-black racism, or to look at the rest of the world and point fingers at anyone’s racism but our own. Remember Glen Babb, the 1980s-era South African ambassador who, annoyed by Canada’s tut-tuting about apartheid, brought up the Indian Act and reserve system to suggest we get our own house in order? The man was annoying, but he did have a point (and still does, thirty-five years or so after making it).

As mentioned earlier, the TRC’s 94 calls to action are addressed to all Canadians, not just the authorities. But change starts at the top. A large part of the reconciliation project is government’s responsibility and, at the federal level, there is a leadership vacuum. When it comes to Indigenous issues, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems mired in New Age platitudes about patience and cooperation and deliberation (“Trust us,” he tells Indigenous people, as if they’ve never heard that before), rather than proposing concrete plans of action or even answering TRC call to action #43, to pass legislation acknowledging the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration). And lame duck Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s calls for law and order during the Wet’suwet’en dispute last month only fanned the flames of anti-Indigenous racism and civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, the Senate has a sitting member who made public statements praising the residential school system. Lynn Beyak also published racist letters, from supporters of those statements, suggesting that Indigenous people are inferior. Instead of being permanently removed as a disgrace to the Upper Chamber, as she should have been, this unfortunate blight on Canada’s political landscape was merely suspended on condition of a full apology and a completed education program on anti-Indigenous racism. The hapless senator didn’t manage to complete her first day of training before being asked to leave because of her racist comments in class, prompting the much-delayed apology. Luckily, Beyak and her ilk are a distinct minority. But the fact she even has a seat in the Senate tells you there’s a problem.

Then there’s the media. Journalistic racism is nothing new, so I needn’t dig up anti-Indigenous examples. But it’s always a bit jarring when white settler obtuseness about Indigenous issues creeps up on our national public broadcaster. On February 16, the host of CBC’s Sunday Edition, Michael Enright, interviewed Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, about the Wet’suwet’en dispute. It was a testy exchange. Enright wanted a good argument and he got one, questioning the First Nations leader’s opposition to the LNG pipeline by making a case for its financial benefits. But the CBC host seemed ill prepared, forcing Phillip to repeat himself about distinctions between hereditary and elected chiefs readily available in that week’s news clippings. It also appeared to be news to Enright that police actions on unceded territory can be harmful to Indigenous people.

Phillip tried to put it in simple terms his interviewer could understand: “We cannot achieve reconciliation by choppering in paramilitary RCMP forces in full battle gear, surrounding encampments. It was absolutely shades of Vietnam, what happened up on Wet’suwet’en territory.”

“Well, hang on a second,” replied Enright. “Vietnam? Were they napalming your people?”

The Twittersphere and CBC’s Facebook page lit up in response, listeners gobsmacked by Enright’s disrespectful lack of empathy: the bow-tied CBC host had blithely dismissed the psychological impact of massive, armed police actions on unceded territory by pointing out the hyperbole of the Grand Chief’s metaphor. Of course the outrage died down, Enright suffering no Don Cherry-like consequences for having insulted a senior Indigenous leader live on the air. But the incident was a good reminder that journalism, too, has a role in reconciliation. Thankfully, those stuffed-shirt Baby Boomers like Enright will one day be replaced by younger generations of broadcasters whose mentors have presumably heeded TRC call to action #86: for “Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the UN Declaration, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.”

Whose ‘Rule of Law’?

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Stand-off at Oka, 1990.

Then there’s the police. It’s no accident that the words “RCMP” and “territorial acknowledgement” never appear in the same sentence. Imagine the oxymoron as a Beaverton video (or Facebook meme, which already exists), the helicopters buzzing above as a flak-jacketed SWAT team member bows his head: “I’d like to acknowledge that today’s police action is taking place on the unceded traditional territories of…”

In all seriousness, Grand Chief Phillip made a good point in his CBC interview: reconciliation is incompatible with armed-to-the-teeth police interventions. But sadly, some liberal non-Indigenous folk want it both ways: we want to look good reciting territorial acknowledgements or wearing our First Nations wrist bands, but when the RCMP waltz into First Nations territory with snipers and canine units, we shrug in our polite Canadian way, saying: “Sorry, can’t be helped—Rule of Law.”

Apart from the obvious limitations of this colonial concept in helping resolve land disputes, the problem with rule of law is that it’s too often nowhere to be found when Aboriginal people could actually benefit from its application. Where was the rule of law for children in residential schools? Or for women and girls raped and murdered on the Highway of Tears? Or for Indigenous men and boys rotting or dying in prison, thanks to whatever reasons the rule of law saw fit to condemn them? Where has it been all those years for countless First Nations communities living under boil water advisories? With these and other injustices piling up over time, and with the forces of corporate capitalism always being the ones to benefit from its enforcement, it should not be hard to grasp why “rule of law” has become such a triggering term for Indigenous peoples.

But since we’re stuck with it as an organizing principle for Canadian society, it’s up to all of us to find ways to make the rule of law more compatible with traditional hereditary laws. We probably shouldn’t hold our breaths waiting for yet another royal commission into the workings of the RCMP, as good an idea as that might seem right now. A review of the entire force and its operations, which could also address the RCMP’s underlying principles and codes of conduct, would be a welcome development for Indigenous people—especially if the commission’s members included Indigenous academics, legal experts, and law enforcement officials.

Failing that, reconciliation on a governance level would be greatly advanced—and more blockades avoided—with more treaties and with more willingness, on the part of federal, provincial, and territorial governments, to heed TRC call #42: “to commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal Peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the UN Declaration, endorsed by Canada in November 2012.” Meanwhile, if the Wet’suwet’en can reach an agreement between hereditary chiefs and elected councils, future disputes similar to the Coastal GasLink issue will become less likely as governments will be able to sign reconciliation agreements with the First Nation. (The one Canada signed with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council in Bella Bella included both hereditary and elected leaders as signatories. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations on Vancouver Island also divide responsibilities between both levels of leadership.)

Living with empathy

Despite our struggles to get beyond paternalism, most Canadians do want to see things improve for Indigenous peoples. But how can we, as individuals, do our part to advance Reconciliation? If there is one barrier that’s within our power to remove, it’s the empathy deficit: we need to become better at appreciating the legacy of colonial abuse and its continuing impacts on Indigenous communities. One way to achieve empathy is to show more willingness to step out of our comfort zones and experience Indigenous culture on its own terms.

At the height of the protests last month, Amanda Follett Hosgood, an old classmate of mine from Royal Roads University’s Master’s program in Professional Communication (with an international/intercultural specialty), posted a bit of common-sense wisdom on her Facebook page. “Better understanding worlds outside our own begins with acknowledging how little we know of another’s perspective and lived experience,” wrote Follett Hosgood, a northern B.C. resident who covered the Wet’suwet’en blockades for The Tyee. Attached to her post was a meme quoting anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis: The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.

A good thing to keep in mind when doing territorial acknowledgements, when seeking knowledge and perspective from Indigenous people themselves (especially if their interests and yours show signs of colliding), or when negotiating around cultural protocols that might seem a little tricky. Just remember: history doesn’t get a “redo.” That is, reconciliation doesn’t work in reverse. It’s a forward process about doing things better in the future, so any advance in mutual understanding, respect, and empathy, is good.

Rally crowd

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