It has been 13 years since the creation of National Indigenous History Month (NIHM) was passed in Parliament, and today Canada states that NIHM is “a time for acknowledging, learning about and appreciating the immeasurable contributions” Indigenous peoples have made to Canada. Despite this statement, Canadians still know very little about the great contributions of Indigenous peoples, especially before and during the time when the country began.
Without Indigenous peoples, many of the first visitors to our shores would have died from starvation, disease, or in their wars with each other claiming unceded Indigenous land. Reconciliation must include truths about how settlers and governments engaged, used, discarded, and harmed Indigenous peoples. This shared history must be included in curricula from elementary school to university. Canadians deserve to learn about the diversity of Indigenous Nations, what Nation-to-Nation treaties entail, what our traditional families, economies, and cultures were like, and how we are contributing to making Canada a better place today.
We are at a pivotal time in Canada’s history with the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015 and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in 2019, the locating of potentially 215 Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school in 2021. There are also the many cases working their way through Canadian courts that have the potential to ensure that Nation-to-Nation treaties in Canada are implemented more fully and as they were originally intended.
Many hidden truths have been laid bare due to the courage and generosity of residential school and MMIWG survivors and families. The country has not fallen apart, nor have individuals had their land taken back by Indigenous Nations. So why are people still so tentative, fearful, and uncomfortable about joining Indigenous peoples on the path to reconciliation?
An incongruous approach to “reconciliation”
Canadians likely recognize the incongruity of the Canadian government’s positive messaging about reconciliation and their minimal actions and progress. Can they believe the federal government is genuinely committed to reconciliation when government bureaucracy continues to move at a snail’s pace despite our women disappearing and being murdered, our children being shuffled into foster homes, and Indigenous youth and adults being warehoused in jails?
Residential school denialists seek to confuse the issue by spreading misinformation as if that will let Canada and churches off the hook for their actions. The delays and excuses of consultation and government processes are quickly thrown aside when the government recognizes they are looking pretty bad, as happened when the potential 215 unmarked graves were located: money was quickly released after years of delay.
In April 2022, the Indigenous Watchdog, a not-for-profit organization that assesses how reconciliation is advancing in Canada, summarized reports from the Yellowhead Institute, CBC’s Beyond 94, and their own work on the federal government’s progress on 76 of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action for which they are solely or partially responsible for.
Although Canada reports fulfilling 22.4 per cent of their responsibility, the Indigenous Watchdog’s analysis shows that they have only completed 10.5 per cent. The report can be found at www.indigenouswatchdog.ca.
On June 3, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) issued its first annual scorecard on Canada’s implementation of its action plan to end violence against Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse individuals. Canada received a failing grade. NWAC reported they had completed 40 of its own 66 actions from their Our Calls, Our Actions report. The scorecards can be viewed at www.nwac.ca
Putting reconciliation into action
Inevitably, after one of my talks, a non-Indigenous person states they are angry that they did not previously learn about the things in my book First Nations 101, including forced assimilation efforts and residential schools. Just as importantly, many want to know how to contribute to reconciliation. I encourage them to learn as much as they can about the true history of Canada and share it with their families, friends and co-workers; to use their vote wisely, and to volunteer for Indigenous organizations as most are under-funded and over-subscribed.
Many Canadians fear that reconciliation requires them to atone for any horrible things their ancestors or governments did to Indigenous peoples or that they have to give up something. Others, especially businesses and governments, tend to only do performative actions such as wearing an orange shirt on September 30 but do little else. We cannot stall, posture, or give in to our own perceived fragility. Rather, reconciliation requires that we be open, courageous, and become comfortable being uncomfortable.
Many Indigenous peoples prefer to use the term reconciliACTION as it requires ongoing action, not just apologies, acknowledgements, listening, or reflecting.
True reconciliation includes supporting Indigenous-led efforts to help foster positive change for Indigenous families and communities, actively educating ourselves about assimilationist efforts that have led to social and economic challenges for many Indigenous peoples. It includes becoming a great ally by telling governments and educational institutions that the true history of Canada must be included in all school curricula, that they must quickly and fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, fulfill the TRC’s Calls to Action and NWAC’s Calls for Justice; and that we will hold them accountable with our vote if they do not commit their time, efforts, and resources towards true reconciliation.
Reconciliation does not end with an apology or sporadic funding and programs, nor is it time-limited or a destination. Rather, reconciliation must be in true partnership with Indigenous peoples with truth as its foundation. Governments may encourage and fund reconciliation initiatives, but we as individuals, groups, organizations, and businesses are the only ones that can ensure that reconciliation efforts occur on a daily basis through consistent action in our families, workplaces, schools, churches, and public spaces.
We all must move along a continuum of reconciliation during our lifetimes from making a donation to an Indigenous organization or attending a talk by an Indigenous person to ultimately returning land back to Indigenous Nations. The vast majority may never be able to give land back, but we can contribute towards the capital campaigns of Indigenous organizations that are trusted and utilized by Indigenous peoples such as the Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver.
As we approach the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, we must focus on truth as true reconciliation cannot happen without it. The survivors and families from the TRC and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) shared their truth and experience with the nation. This incredibly selfless gift cannot be ignored and this unique time in history cannot be wasted on governments posturing, primarily listening and reflecting rather than contributing to positive change and failing to acknowledge and honor Indigenous inherent rights and title to their lands and resources.
Let us not be fooled by grandiose announcements about returning authority and responsibility to Indigenous communities, without hearing from Indigenous peoples about the actual context so we can make informed opinions and decisions that are based on diverse input and perspectives. The transfer of responsibility for child and family services to First Nations Bands sounds exciting, but context in this case shows us that the downloading of responsibility does not come with enough financial, human and other resources to overcome the many challenges that the federal government created.
Reconciliation requires great allies who encourage others to walk with them down the road to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Achieving true reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the country will take many generations, but it will take much longer if we don’t increase our individual and collective efforts now.