Note: a thought piece, not a representation of organization/institution/community I am affiliated with. I would like to thank all the scholars/teachers that have educated me in related content and concepts in such post.
When we think about reconciliation in Canada, some important things to point out is the TRC, but not only the latest report. We must also consider the historical reports that came before. RCAP, Hawthorne report and so on.
For the last 50 or so years in Canada, Indigenous peoples have been legally and publicly uprising and opposing the Canadian state. I say legally and publicly because prior to this due to Indian Act legislature Indigenous peoples were still confined to the states reserve lands, and been taken at an alarming rate from their homes by Indian Agents. Before there were amendments, such as giving Indians the right to vote or be able to attend post-secondary institutions, Indians weren’t even allowed to gather in crowds larger than 3, or own any property. In this legal bind, Indians could not do much. They could not practise languages, culture or ceremony, as per the Canadian federal government.
This history is so important to understand when living in Canada. When I think about this history, and how little people know about it, especially those living in Canada, it makes me think about why they don’t know, what they would do if they knew, and what would them knowing do for Indigenous peoples?
What is Reconciliation: who does it serve, and who does it leave out?
You may have heard about it on the news. You might have scrolled on Facebook and saw some photo of Justin Trudeau crying. You may have even been at an event, or in a classroom and heard a land acknowledgment being read. Either way, in the past year, you may have come across the word “reconciliation”.
Reconciliation by definition may mean “the restoration of friendly relations”. When thinking about this, I try to use examples. The restoration of a relationship can mean various things, depending on the type of relationship, and the type of disagreement/difference/fallout that has happened. Maybe I get into an argument with a friend from school over politics, perhaps we can try and work towards a middle ground where we see each others side and share space with each other respecting each others ideas. It seems simple enough, but I know we have all been there…and there isn’t so easy, it can be quite complex. Now think of a situation in which the stakes are much higher, such something like land, power, resource, and the relationship you have with that person isn’t just sharing something like a classroom space, but maybe an entire country, and its land, resource and having equal power in such land.
This can be quite difficult to comprehend, and to understand because it requires the understanding of the original agreements made between settlers and Indigenous nations. Some of these agreements might be known as treaties, or wampum. Wampum has been a nation to nation practise in terms of building relationships and establishing the tenants of those relationships. When referencing something such as the Two-Row wampum, it is important to understand and see the intent of the nations who entered into such an agreement. For the Haudenosaunee, this agreement represented peace, trust and friendship, as long as the river runs and the sun rises. However for Europeans settlers, this was not an agreement they abided by. For settlers, they saw the abundance of land, and they saw resource. They did not see our nations, our governance, our languages, our cultures and the interconnected systems of relationships we have with each other and with the natural world. All they saw, was land, and that we as people were in the way.
We may or may not know about the horrifying details of colonialism, but this is not what this post is about. You can read more of that here:
This is about the now, and the future. This is about this so called “era of reconciliation”.
The TRC developments came about due to recommendations via RCAP. In conjunction with the Indian Residential School Settlement agreement, which is the largest class action lawsuit in Canada (bet they didn’t teach you that in Canadian history). This settlement agreement is a way for the state to make some sort of reparations with those survivors of residential schools. However, this process requires those survivors to come forward and speak their grievances. Where adjudicators then define the abuses survivors have been through, and work out compensation packages. Maybe you’ve been sexually assaulted every week for 10 years in a residential school, here is your money and we’re sorry – says Canada.
This form of reconciliation is another way the state continues to silence settler colonialism, and brush past the ongoing tension that exists with Indigenous peoples in Canada. This way of making reparations does not hold the state accountable for land theft, or continued violence on Indigenous bodies.
Out of the TRC also came 94 Calls to Action. These call to actions highlight some actionable things that various industries and institutions can do to move the dial for reconciliation. In turn this has been modified into simplified lists for organizations and companies to follow. Instead of decolonization, they want reconciliation. Instead of giving land back they give land acknowledgments. Instead of funding cultural restoration they throw money for degrees. This is part of the reconciliation industry, entire careers can be made out of this era. Reconciliation is another way for the Canadian state to sweep Indigenous people under the rug, build careers and make money over a problem that will never go away.
When thinking about reconciliation it is important to consider who does this era serve? Yes, the TRC and the current movement of issues has come to the forefront. But is anything really changing? Now when there is a job posting for universities to hire and instructor for Indigenous studies, will it go to a knowledge keeper from a community, or will it go to a white settler who happens to do Indigenous research and holds a PhD in Indigenous studies?
These are things to really be critical about this time. And it is honestly a very awkward conversation to have in this time, because it probably makes settler interested in “helping” or “saving the Indians” very uncomfortable, as it should.
To me, this raises questions of who is reconciliation really for? The organization that is responding to the TRC calls to action, then hopes to hire someone who is Indigenous. But this is not what needs to happen for Indigenous peoples. There needs to be actual relinquishment of power. It isn’t just the hiring of your token Indian, then you can check a box, and apply for that diversity award. It’s making space, physical and literal space, to include and follow an Indigenous voice.
To me, in my own personal perspective. It isn’t hiring me to be a staff member, your token Indigenous person, to say that you did something. It is overhauling the entirety of institutions and re-imagining a decolonial future. It isn’t land acknowledgments, it is giving land back.
Non-Indigenous roles in reconciliation
People often come to me, when I facilitate, or speak about Indigeneity, and say “what can I do Diane? What do I do?” I have a little voice in my head that laughs and I keep an invisible jar around my neck to collect settler tears. All jokes aside, I really do not have the answers. And we cannot expect one person to either.
When I think about the non-Indigenous roles in reconciliation, I think about pre-contact way of life, and how these types of relationships would be built. Pre-contact, Haudenosaunee made relationships through the sharing of resources, and in a reciprocal manner. There was to be no harm done to each other, and an understanding of sharing land and keeping peace. I think about these tenants, and how relationships were built from the before, because I think they are truly vital, and I have a lot to learn from them right now.
I went to an artist workshop facilitated by Maani Oakes and she put it pretty simple for settlers. If you are living in a space in Canada, find out the original stewards of the land you occupy, know and understand the traditional governance of that territory and participate in the tenants and intent of those agreements in a good way. This has been common practise before European contact in North America. Pre-contact if you were an out of territory person, you would be expect to be invited into another nations territory willingly, and be expected to abide by the governance, traditions and protocols of that territory. It’s kind of like inviting a friend over for coffee, it’s understand that based on your relationship you are a guest, and are treated so. This ties back into how wampum was created with settlers. Indigenous nations have been practising these ways since time immemorial.
So, for settlers, it means doing your homework. And no that doesn’t mean asking the only Native friend you know. It means you getting off your butt, and researching and Indigenous author, writer, poet, teacher, activist etc. who does this work. It means going to your local Friendship centre and educating yourself, it means participating in your local Indigenous initiatives, it means when you educate yourself you educate your racist Aunt, and ensure you educate your children. It means intervening in a conversation with a co-worker about “Natives getting a free ride”.
The truth is that Indigenous people cannot and should not do this work alone, it requires the ongoing work of settlers and the relinquishment of power by institutions and people.
Indigenous roles in reconciliation
This is honestly tricky. And probably for myself an even more awkward conversation to have. The thing about reconciliation and Indigenous peoples, is that we have nothing to reconcile. It is Canada that must reconcile with us.
When I think about my role, and even my career and education. I think about some of the opportunities I have gotten due to the reconciliation industry. Perhaps some funding, some scholarships, some jobs here and there. I think about how in this time, it might even be easier to access post-secondary now than my mother did when she was 23. And it might be due to the simple fact that people like my mom, my ancestors and community advocated for me to get here. But also that the government is now floating more money than ever to something like reconciliation. So what does this mean for Indigenous people?
I cannot really answer. All I can say is what it means for me. Again, this industry is allowing for the flowing of resources more than ever to be towards anything that has a “reconciliation” title slapped onto it. My hope, and my intention is that Indigenous peoples utilize this time to re-imagine/imagine a decolonial/Indigenous future more than ever. Because just as the state called for reconciliation, they may also call for the end of it.
The Reconciliation Industry
I spoke about this briefly before, but let’s try to define what exactly the reconciliation industry is. The reconciliation industry, is a spin-off of the era of reconciliation. It is the market for reconciliation work that has been created ever since the release of the TRC final report, and the 94 calls to action. It is the attempt to make reparations with Indigenous peoples with a mask of reconciliation, over the face of erasing settler colonialism and Indigeneity. It is an industry dedicated to “red-wash” every aspect of the society, without decolonizing any part of the society. It is the industry dedicated to romanticizing Indigenous knowledge and trauma, while avoiding Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty. Overall, the reconciliation industry is in works to benefit the few over the all, and a quick, economically, politically and socially beneficial career. It is in sum, a quick fix to a problem that will never go away.
Recently a friend asked me about anger. And I really thought about this for a bit. I thought about the “angry Indian” persona, always ready to protest, always made at the white man, blaming the government for everything. This might be what Canadians usually see our people as. And that’s a pretty loaded, over simplified idea of Indigenous thought.
I think about myself, and when I started to educate myself and learn about the impact of settler colonialism on my lineage, and my community. I was angry. I was angry that so much had been taken away from my people, I was angry that I didn’t know my language, I was angry that a lot of our people live in poverty, I was angry at the abuse that goes on in our community. I was angry about it all. I think for me this anger really internalized, and came out in a way where I started to be angry at everything. Especially those that did not know, or those who made assumptions about Native life. It grew into this hatred of revealing my identity to settlers in efforts to avoid conversation about free education and a tax free life. The anger got to me so much that I lost sight of what I was trying to accomplish and what my identity was, and ultimately what I hoped for in my future.
It wasn’t until I heard a residential school survivor speak. About her abuses and her trauma, and I realized through her narrative that in this process of colonialism, not only are we still here, we are still living. One thing she said is “I had to forgive all my abusers in order to survive”. And this really spoke to me, it made me understand that this anger I carried, is a by-product of being dispossessed and feeling excluded, but this is exactly what the state wants me to feel. Instead when I heard her speak, I started to understand the power of letting go.
I grounded myself then, by exploring more about who I was, my lineage, my ancestry and the nation in which I come from. When I went back to my teachings, as Haudenosaunee, we have the Great Law, and the Tree of Peace. Learning these tenants, these teachings and lessons helped me to understand that having a good mind and keeping the peace was in our way, and that practising it, knowing it and understanding it would help guide us through life. European contact disrupted our ways of life as Haudenosaunee and made it impossible to restore pre-contact ways completely. That being said, when I sat in a circle listening to these teachings, these stories and these openings in Kanien’kehá:ka (a sister language to Oneida), I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride.
In the face of it all, our people have kept these things. In the face of it all, our people kept these languages, in the face of it all, we still have these ways. We may not have all of it, but we still have these ideals, these ways and these mindsets.
I started to understand resiliency. I started to understand that language may skip a generation but it doesn’t need to die out. I started to understand that cycles of abuse do not need to continue. I started to understand my own ability and power in this process. That I am not an Indian who needs saving, but I am Onkwehonwe protected with the strength of my ancestors, in a position to dream, pray and work towards a decolonial future.
Indigenous futurisms has been something I have been into as of late, in contrast of the reconciliation industry. The reconciliation industry does not include specifics of what a future will look like, it holds the assumption that problems will simply go away without the restructuring of systems. And this is what I dream of:
I dream of a decolonial future where Indigenous women are valued and protected.
I dream of a decolonial future where Indigenous children have the same access and rights as everyone else.
I dream of a decolonial future of Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty.
I dream of a decolonial future of divestment.
I dream of non-liner decolonial future.
I dream of a genderless decolonial future.
I dream of a matriarchal decolonial future.
I dream of a restorative justice decolonial future.
I dream of a Black and Indigenous decolonial future.
I dream of decolonial future where Indigenous peoples can thrive, dream, hope, live in peace.
Yes. These are ideals. Yes these are abstract. Yes this may not be possible in my life time. But I once heard from Billy-Ray Belcourt. He said that reserve systems are inherently a place of desire. This is because reserves were intended for death and impoverishment, but for Indians to thrive and dream of a future is in itself a re-imagined place to keep dreaming. Something that I think is the most powerful thing we can have.