Reparations mean more than having to say you’re sorry.
What some Aboriginal and African-Canadians want reparations to do is right a legacy of historical wrongs against them. So far, though, the colonial powers that benefited from so many people’s subjugation have been silent, offering no real apology or compensation for the damage they caused.
“There is a lot of damage that needs to be repaired, but that damage is not always easy to see; especially to those who are not living with the scars,” explains Clem Marshal, a prominent black author, artist and activist. “Humans have a shallow memory bank, so we do not always remember the past.”
Acknowledging the past can be difficult. But Barbara Riley (her Aboriginal name is Wabano Kwe), a respected elder from the Ojibwe nation, feels Aboriginal people should embrace their pain and their past and use it to benefit their community. “Even though we were colonized back in 1492, some people still hurt. It hurts when your land is taken away. It hurts when your language is taken away. It hurts when your children are taken away. But we must go on a healing journey.”
Providing reparations would be one step along that journey.
Marshal believes that “Because of the very nature of the injury against our people, there must be a spiritual piece and a material piece to this process.” He also says that the people who should choose what they need should be the people who suffered, no one else.
“Reparations cannot only be through monetary compensation, though. We have to fix the system or we’ll just be investing the money back into the same system that oppressed us then and oppresses us now,” says Olanyi Parsons, a York University student.
To people who argue they should not be forced to pay for the crimes others committed in the past, Sandra Carnagie-Douglas, the executive coordinator of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) is quick to point out that legacy of racism still exists. “Reparations bring attention to the past and you cannot talk about racism today without talking about the past,” she says.
At the Durban Conference on the Elimination of Racism, the issue of reparations had been on the table, though it was overshadowed by the debate around the Israeli and Palestinian question. Because of this, says Carnagie-Douglas, “It’s up to citizens to confront our governments, both on the issue of Aboriginal treaty rights and the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as confronting governments around how they address racism, to not do so just in a wishy-washy way.”
When Matthew Coon Come made his infamous address to the conference where he referred to Canada as a racist country, he elicited a strong reaction from Canadian citizens. On August 30 at the conference, he said, “I realize this may be surprising news for some of you. Canadians, and the government of Canada, present themselves around the world as upholders and protectors of human rights. In many ways, this reputation is well-deserved … However, at home in Canada, the oppression, marginalization and dispossession of indigenous peoples continue.”
The Canadian government acted quickly to respond to Coon Come’s criticisms. Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault told The Toronto Star, “With this kind of language and talk, I believe Matthew Coon Come is going to set the agenda back for many years. He’s going to find it very difficult for people to do business with him if he’s going to make those kinds of serious accusations, which we all take very seriously. People like myself … are not just annoyed, we’re just beside ourselves.”
Sharon Menow (her Aboriginal name is Stone Dancer), from the Norway House Cree Nation, had a different reaction. “I thought it was great, fantastic. The truth about Canada was a long time coming. It was a proud moment for Aboriginals living in Canada. The consequences of Coon Come speaking out, though, was that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) had its funding cut right after. That was the unfortunate outcome of speaking the truth.”
Carnagie-Douglas, who attended the conference, felt her experience was positive because the resolution that was drafted both apologizes tp the people who have suffered and indicates that countries must provide some kind of remedy or recourse to them.
The question remains: Where do Canadians go from here?
When asked if she felt the Canadian government would ever return treaty land back to the Aboriginal people, Riley’s answer was a resounding no. She felt it was more important to focus on uniting the four different races — red, yellow, white and black — together against present and future injustices. That way, she said, we could go on the healing journey together.