That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying and Reconciliation

Haida totem pole, British Columbia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Canadian nation-state presents itself to the world as a benign peacekeeper and benevolent force for good in the world. This myth washes over us and leaves us unwilling and reluctant to face up to our past as a white settler colonial state. If we did a few nasty things in the past, well, that was the past and let’s get on with living for today. We are a multi-cultural, tolerant society these days after all. But in the last two or three decades a controversial fire-storm has exploded into our national psyche. First Nations peoples have initiated Truth and Reconciliation hearings to tell their story of life in residential schools. They want to tell non-Aboriginal Canadians the truth, demand that Canadian history be restoried, apologies given by churches and governments, reparations provided and reconciliation processes be initiated.

These demands are fueled by acute sorrow and fiery anger. These demands have themselves stirred up political and academic hornets’ nests of dispute, denial and defensiveness. On the one side, Aboriginal peoples carry a long, long history of deceptive treaty-making by the government and its agents. The white man’s tongue is, indeed, forked. And on the other side, a government that has not yet even admitted, despite former PM Stephen Harper’s disingenuous apology in 2008 (in 2007 his government rejected signing the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights), that the calamity of the residentials schools was an integral part of the destruction of Native cultures to build an apartheid Canadian nation-state. Government spokespersons and some historians deny that the birth of Canada in 1867 must be linked intimately to the Indian Act of 1876.

In her incisively argued book, Aboriginal people and colonies of Western Canada to 1900 (University of Toronto Press, 1990), Sarah Carter states: “The Indian Act of 1876, which has been described as a ‘formidable dossier of repression’ and which established race-based laws and limitations in Canada, was originally passed with 100 sections, and this nearly doubled in the next thirty years, to 195. It consigned Aboriginal people to the status of minors; they were British subjects but not citizens, sharing the status of children, felons, and the insane, and it established the federal government as their guardians. Those who came under the act were not allowed to vote in federal or provincial elections, and as they were not voters they were legally prohibited from the professions of law and politics, unless they gave up their Indian status” (p. 117).

Carter informs us that many of the clauses of the Act were based on “nineteenth-century negative stereotypes of Indians as drunkards, as immoral, as incapable of handling money” (p. 118). Indians were perceived as a “foreign element” within Canada. Although the “pass system” was not law, it was imposed as a policy that required government permission to leave the reserve. Some Aboriginal people thought of the reserve as a “concentration camp.” The Indian Act was racist to its malevolent core. It could not have been imagined into existence without deeply, unquestionably held notions of the inferiority of Aboriginal people.

Even as late as 1987, Justice McEachern could rule against Gitksan land claims with these lamentable words: “The territory is a vast emptiness … The Indians of the territory were, by historical standards, a primitive people without any form of writing, horses, or wheeled wagons … The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en civilizations, if they qualify for that description, fall within a much lower, even primitive order” (cited, Paulette Regan, Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada [UBC Press, 2010, p. 165). McEachern went on to suggest that Natives were conquered by a more worthy, relentlessly energetic people. Since this statement, Indigenous issues have developed into a rather formidable body of texts shredding myths about Native inferiority into thousands of shards. Old narratives of Canada without Indians must be overturned and restoried.

We want so badly to believe national, patriotic myths about how peace-loving and tolerant we are as Canadians. Thus, given how deeply non-Aboriginals want to deny our racist past with its consequences very much evident today, and how deeply Aboriginal peoples do not trust their governments, how might reconciliation be even possible? Answer: not easily. One big reason, very big in fact, is quite simply that the government and legal system do not respect or even understand First Nations concepts of law, diplomacy, and peace-making ceremonial processes. Until very recently, oral accounts of life experience have counted for naught in legal proceedings.

In the heady Treaty-making days of the 1870s, they didn’t trust fully those making treaties. And they didn’t when residential school participants were forced to tell their stories to a tort-based legal system that, once again, placed the onus on native people to prove they were abused. This system was based on blame and fault-finding, wrongdoing and compensation and was unconducive to reconciliation. The white settler state always knows what is best for Natives, doesn’t it? An uproar from Indigenous people regarding this unjust and disrespectful process used in the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, initiated in 2004, ended this fiasco. First Nations men and women who suffered sexual and other abuses did not want to have to prove they were abused in the first place!

The literature on reconciliation is extensive and controversial, so I will set out the lucid axioms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 2012 Interim Report. The Commission “believes that the following guiding principles of truth and reconciliation will assist Canadians moving forward” (A knock on the door: the essential history of residential schools from the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada [2016]). The TRC urges readers that Canada’s political and legal systems, educational and religious institutions, the corporate sector and civil society function in ways consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

1) The United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.

2) First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples, as the original peoples of this country and as self-determining peoples, have Treaty, constitutional, and human rights that must be recognized and respected.

3) Reconciliation is a process of healing of relationships that require public truth sharing, apology, and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.

4) Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages health, child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportunities and prosperity.

5) Reconciliation must create a more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health, and economic outcomes that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

6) All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.

7) The perspectives and understanding of Aboriginal Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers of the ethics, concepts, and practices of reconciliation are vital to long-term reconciliation.

8) Supporting Aboriginal peoples’ cultural revitalization and integration Indigenous knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, protocols, and connections to the land into the reconciliation process are essential.

9) Reconciliation requires political will, joint leadership, trust building, accountability, and transparency, as well as a substantial investment of resources.

10) Reconciliation requires public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society.

The TRC concludes: “Together, Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives—within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces. To do so constructively, Canadians must remain committed to the ongoing work of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships” (pp. 160-162).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.