Future of reconciliation

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Far too often, when non-native Canadians think of Indigenous peoples, they think of the past. Media images project fantasies of natives posed in a romantic state of nature, frozen in a distant moment of history.

But the reality is different. Indigenous peoples are a vital part of Canada’s present and future.

According to Statistics Canada and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Indigenous peoples are the youngest and “the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population.” In Saskatchewan, if current demographic trends continue, Indigenous people could comprise the province’s majority population by the mid-2050s.

But what will this future look like? What does this mean for Indigenous and non-native Canadians alike?

The answers depend upon what we, as members of a diverse national community, do right now.

We are living during a time of reckoning with the history and ongoing effects of colonialism in Canada. The media, government and some Indigenous organizations have called the present a time of reconciliation. In June 2008, Canada became the first G8 nation and established liberal democracy to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — a type of forum usually convened in the aftermath of civil war or corrupt political regimes.

The fact the federal government and church organizations agreed to participate in such a forum suggests an implicit recognition that, within our own borders, gross human rights violations have occurred.

Canada’s TRC is an independent commission tasked with investigating the history and continued impacts of compulsory residential schooling for Indigenous children, a system that, for more than a century, separated children from their families, prohibited the use of their languages and subjected many students to malnourishment and sexual and physical abuse.

But these are not the only violations Indigenous peoples have experienced under colonialism.

Colonialism in Canada also involved the expropriation of Indigenous lands, the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples to reservations and remote locations and, as legislated under the Indian Act, the suppression of Indigenous cultural practices and ceremonies, and the prohibition of Indigenous peoples’ right to obtain legal counsel.

What does it mean to try to reconcile the terrible legacy of colonialism in Canada, a legacy that, for some, seems irreconcilable?

Across the country, scholars, politicians, lawyers, Indigenous leaders and communities are grappling with this question. Although there is no easy consensus, many Indigenous intellectuals and activists agree on several common themes. Reconciliation requires active remembering — not ‘forgiving and forgetting’ — so colonial violence is not repeated in the future.

Reconciliation must be about more than saying sorry; it must be about enacting social change. Reconciliation will remain hollow without forms of restitution, including the honouring of the Aboriginal and treaty rights already enshrined in section 35(1) of the Constitution Act. Reconciliation does not have a fixed end-point. It is about an ongoing process as the future continues to unfold.

Such a future of reconciliation in Canada — a future of honest dialogue, equity and justice — has the potential to be a great one. There are no statistical formulae that can ensure its arrival, but there are ways to start working toward it now.

Education and engagement are two vital elements.

As Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, has frequently said, it was through residential schools so many problems were created and it is now through the education system we might resolve them. Too many generations of non-native Canadians have passed through the public school system without ever learning about the full extent of colonialism in our country. Too many generations of students have been denied the gift of learning about First Peoples through their own words and perspectives, their own extraordinary storytelling, writing, arts and ecological and scientific knowledge.

Such learning is key to combating stereotypes, cultivating respect, and building foundations for good relationships.

Engagement is the complement to education. To me, it means putting knowledge into practice, seeking out opportunities to participate in conversations, and learning to see the places we live or the people we encounter differently.

Pauline Wakeham is a professor of Indigenous literary and cultural studies in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.