If we’re serious about reconciliation, here’s some better ideas than wallowing in shame

Posted on July 1, 2017 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment – Much of what gets talked about as “reconciliation” has little to do with the reconciliation we all claim to be striving for
June 29, 2017.   TERRY GLAVIN

If you’re the sort of person who insists that Canada’s indigenous people are shirkers, shakedown artists, swindlers and tax cheats who should just let it go and shut up about residential schools, you’ll want to give this column a pass. If you really believe that Canada 150 is no time to notice the cruelty in Canada’s history and the ongoing alienation from the rest of us that so disfigures indigenous communities across the country, there’s no point in trying to convince you otherwise.

Neither is this column intended to badger indigenous people, so many of whom have reasonably come to expect that whenever yet another news media come-from-away is carving out some kind of standpoint on questions that concern them, it’ll just end up another hectoring of the First Nations leadership to play nice and be reasonable. Or, alternatively, and more in keeping with the current fashion, the central roles indigenous people have played in Canadian history will be reduced to bit-part performances by the victims of wicked priests, railroad builders and child welfare agencies.

If you’re the type of person who makes a big show of being angry and miserable owing to the spectacle of everyone getting swept up in what you’ve been calling “a celebration of colonial violence” on this 150th anniversary of Confederation, well, suit yourself. You can carry on claiming the super-cool status of being among an elite cadre of gallant “allies” standing with indigenous people in an imaginary twilight struggle against Canadian white supremacy and its racist, colonial settler state. Bully for you.

But none of that has got anything to do with the “reconciliation” we all claim to be striving for. It’s the opposite. And it’s nothing new. Declarations of allegiance to indigenous people are what underlie what is arguably Canada’s oldest “activist” tradition. The Aborigines Protection Society was founded 30 years before Confederation and went on to exert a healthy influence on colonial policy towards the various nations and tribes across Canada in the decades after Confederation. But even the APS had an unintended hand in formulating the residential schools policy. “Decolonization” might sound more sophisticated than “civilization” as the basis for settler-indigenous relations, but even the best intentions can come apart in catastrophe.

As for the rest of us, in all our glorious multicultural colours and shapes and sizes, it is not at all clear why we should be ashamed of ourselves as we enjoy the parades and our federally-subsidized Canada 150 block parties and our holiday weekend outings in the park with the kids. It turns out that browbeating and bullying Canadians into some greater awareness and concern about the state of relations among and between settler and indigenous people isn’t just boring and counterproductive. It’s unnecessary.

A recent Environics Institute poll shows only 13 per cent of Canadians cleave to the retrograde view of indigenous people as ungrateful beneficiaries of government largesse. More than eight in 10 say individual Canadians have a positive role to play in reconciliation. Nearly nine in 10 want the abuses suffered by indigenous people taught to Canadian schoolchildren. Two years ago, before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report, an Angus Reid poll found that seven in 10 Canadians agreed that “cultural genocide” adequately describes the legacy of the residential schools system. A just-released Angus Reid surveyshows Canadians take an overwhelmingly dim view of the role churches played in running the schools. Even among the “religiously committed,” three times as many respondents said the schools were negative compared to those who said otherwise.

Canadians are getting on with it as best they can, within the limits set by the political leadership we’ve elected. Across Canada, local indigenous and community groups are devising ways to commemorate Canada 150 that don’t require weeping and shouting and the draping of white people in sackcloth and ashes. The City of Vancouver, for instance, has combined with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and an eclectic group of the city’s urban aboriginal people in a series of “Canada 150 Plus” events, including a parade, a canoe gathering, art gallery installations, a cultural festival and a concert.

As part of its roughly $500 million sesquicentennial spending, the federal government has expended an effort, which has been as awkward as you might imagine, to “re-commit to a renewed nation-to-nation, government-to-government and Inuit-Crown relationship with Indigenous peoples — one based on recognition of rights, respect, and partnership.” On the newly named National Indigenous People’s Day, June 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa, across from Parliament Hill, will be rededicated to some as-yet undetermined purpose for Inuit, Métis and First Nations. Trudeau also announced that the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation, will be struck from the Langevin Block, owing to Langevin’s insistence that it was best to cart children off to residential schools to keep them from their “savage” parents.

But Lagenvin’s ideas were no less explicitly assimilationist than those of Justin Trudeau’s father in 1969, when the newly elected Pierre Trudeau unveiled a policy paper outlining his government’s intention to eliminate Indian legal status completely, abolish the Indian Affairs department, privatize Indian reserves and terminate all the treaties. The reaction was nearly insurrection, as more good intentions collapsed into catastrophe. Perhaps in 2067 we’ll be stripping the name Trudeau from everything.


Even now, the federal government is being dragged by the scruff of its neck, and by a succession of compliance orders, to get itself in line with a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal finding that 165,000 indigenous kids are being recklessly discriminated against by penny-pinching over their access to health care. And that’s just one of several ugly points of conflict at the moment between federal and indigenous leaders, and it’s without even delving into the sky-high rates of murder, suicide, unemployment and poverty that beset so many indigenous communities across Canada.

A great deal of that misery can be chalked up to the overpowering sense of loss upon loss that pervades so many indigenous communities. If reconciliation is the way out of that, and if it’s to mean something more than the occasional grand gesture, and if indigenous people are to be at last assured of a proper place in Confederation, you can read the dozens of recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2015 or the dozens more in the dusty pages of the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Or maybe it’s time for some new ideas, to get us beyond the cycles of grievance-reiteration and epochs of national amnesia. Like reconfiguring the Office of Canada’s Governor-General as a permanent indigenous appointment. Like adding a fifth “region” to the Senate, in addition to Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the West, to represent the First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Maybe our politicians are not ready for something so constitutionally ambitious and risky. Maybe Canadians have been more than ready for a new adventure like that for quite some time.

At the very least, we might start by recovering Canada’s forgotten history as a country that was being built long before Confederation by indigenous people along with the English and the French, a country that evolved and flourished in that way, as often as not, long after Confederation. That would be a place to start, not as some sort of affirmative action program, or a mere exercise in making amends, but because it acknowledges a defining historical fact about Canada. It was that tripartite collaboration that ended up evolving into the national basis for the things Canadians so stubbornly celebrate every year on July 1.

So let’s start there.


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