Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported out this week. It has finished its work, listening to the stories of the survivors of Indian residential schools, promoting dialogue and healing and urging Canadians to understand what is implied by reconciliation.
For many Canadians, the TRC’s work will receive a minimal passing notice in their day. They will have heard of it, they will probably know something of the history of residential schools, but they are unlikely to know how the legacy of residential schools plays out in contemporary society. Most non-indigenous people think it was “all in the past.” For most non-indigenous Canadians, residential schools was something that happened to others, who suffered injustice at the hands of people who are long dead.
So if you are a non-indigenous person, what does reconciliation mean to you? I think it’s important to understand that Canada was founded on two parallel strategies: brute force colonization and agreements meant to uphold the “honour of the Crown.” It’s kind of crazy. If you are an indigenous person you’re never quite sure if Canadian society is here to live up to its obligations or smash you in the face, because since the very beginning to the present day, one hand is offered in peace and the other is a fist.
And here’s what you need to understand if you are a non-indigenous person. If you are a Canadian, you are a treaty beneficiary, end of story. No matter if your family arrived in 1532 or last Tuesday. If you have Canadian citizenship you personally benefit from the treaty relationships that, over time, have made it possible for Canadians to own land, to develop resources, to use water, to hike in the forest, to grow things and make money. In exchange for the ability of the Crown to permanently occupy and use these lands, and therefore give you personally that same right, treaties created a relationship that is just as permanent with indigenous nations. If you are an advocate of “tearing up the treaties and starting over” then you are obligated to return your private land and all the wealth you have generated from Crown lands to the bargaining table. Because the very fact that you can live in this legal frameworks is a result of you personally being a treaty beneficiary. Yes, even in places where there are no treaties.
So the first thing you can do to advance the cause of reconciliation is to understand that you benefit from treaties, and that you personally have rights and responsibilities to First Nations that flow from this relationship. Some of these responsibilities are exercised through governments, but you pay for them personally with your taxes and that is as it should be. So remember this and remind others that Canada is a land founded on relationships and legally binding contracts and you have a duty to uphold the honour of the Crown’s end of the bargain. Not only governments. You, also.
Secondly, understand that First Nations are still to this day experiencing the brutal fist of colonization. When you see socio-economic statistics that talk about homelessness, addictions, abuse, diabetes and suicide rates that are far above the national average, understand that you are seeing colonization in action. When you see the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and you see government’s luke warm response to this crises, understand that these girls and women are taking the full force of a society that still propagates violence against indigenous people with much impunity. When you hear of First Nations being steamrolled by global corporate interests like mines and tar sands operations and pipelines and fish farms against their consent and will, you are witnessing the same dynamics that were at play in the “dark days” of colonization and western expansion. If you think it was wrong then you must see that it is wrong now. Thankfully First Nations have more and more rights recognized in the Canadian court system and so it is harder and harder to be subjected to this kind of colonial activity. But you have to understand that this is not First Nations stopping economic growth: it is indigenous peoples using the Constitution of Canada to resist the abusive power of colonization. It deserves respect and support, because when Nations do this, they are operating within the legal framework of the country that gives you your own rights. To diminish their ability to do so would weaken the rule of law that benefits you.
Understanding that these two dynamics are at play is a practical, critical thing that all Canadians can do to make reconciliation real. And you can think about these things, see how they personally play out in your own life and address those who say that “treaties need to be redone” or “Indians get stuff for free” or “all that violence happened in the past” or “it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
We have to fundamentally restructure the relationship in Canada but it does not start with governments. it starts with you and me. Take this moment in time to take a step closer to real reconciliation and help the TRC’s process actually have a legacy. Don’t wait for other people to create that legacy for you.