IS RECONCILIATION DEAD?
Updated: May 21, 2020
This author doesn't think so.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic co-opted all the space in the news, not so very many months ago, the phrase "Reconciliation is dead" appeared on signs and in media reports during the past winter's protests in solidarity with the hereditary Wet'suwet'en chiefs' blockade against the Coastal GasLink project in northern British Columbia.
In March, those who argued for the death of reconciliation had good reason to feel pessimistic. They pointed out that the implications of Wet'suwet'en title to their traditional territory had not been ironed out since the landmark Delgamuukw case in 1997, in which the Supreme Court upheld their Aboriginal right and title. Twenty-three years had passed without resolving issues such as treaty negotiations and companies operating in their traditional territories without permission.
The people who voiced that reconciliation is dead also pointed out that the blockades exposed a frightening undercurrent of racism in Canadian society, evident in hostile and hateful online comments as well as personal attacks and slurs on Indigenous people.
Like so many intractable issues faced by humanity, the divisive nature of the discourse on reconciliation was troubling and didn't seem to be leading to any solutions that could satisfy all parties.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced its way into most people's minds. I began to wonder if this time might be a breather, a time in which to detach from old ways of thinking, a time to reconsider principles which could underlie any future attempts at reconciliation. While the word itself can be fraught with many different meanings, "reconcile" means to harmonize, to create unity at all different levels. What this pandemic is teaching us more than ever is how interconnected the whole world is; how we are the members of one race--the human race--and if harm and pain comes to one part of that entity, it will inevitably eventually come to the rest. This theme of the oneness of humanity is often voiced by Indigenous elders as a core traditional belief.
I wish to argue that reconciliation is most certainly not dead. It may be weak, just embers of a fire threatening to be blown out, but it is not dead. It can't be. It has barely begun.
What also is acutely obvious now is how this pandemic is not treating all members of the human race equally. Some of us can isolate comfortably in our homes, while others don't have a home or even a bed to sleep on. The pandemic is hitting especially hard populations which historically have poor standards of material well-being, health and education. These are, most often in Canada, Indigenous populations, the homeless and immigrant populations. South of the border, the Navajo Nation now has the highest per-capita Covid-19 infection rate in the country. As of May 20, 2020, there were 4253 cases of Covid-19, 146 deaths, and 21,199 negative tests. (https://www.ndoh.navajo-nsn.gov/COVID-19)
On the other hand, on a talk on May 21,2020 in the REDTalks Wisdom Keepers series, Senator Murray Sinclair emphasized that this is not the first time Indigenous people have experienced pandemics, and many Indigenous communities were proactive in locking down, closing their borders, and advising their members to stay home, isolate to the degree possible and practice all the protocols advised by public health authorities.
While I wish to argue for a full-bodied revival of work on reconciliation, I am not naive. It is going to take a lot of education, hard work, sacrifice, and a change of heart on the part of many people. And many, many of those need to be non-Indigenous people.
I am a non-Indigenous person of Irish and Croatian ancestry. My Croatian grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s and homesteaded in Wet'suwet'en territory, outside of Smithers, B.C. Though I have been connected to Indigenous people for over 40 years through volunteer service, until the last decade I had not educated myself about the issues underlying Canada's history in relation to Indigenous people. I spent several years researching the history and my eyes were opened wide to the gross injustices carried out in the name of the institutions of this country, injustices which continue throughout our systems to this day. You cannot read the news with an open mind and remain unaware of the extent of trauma which has been and is being carried by the first inhabitants of our country.
So when I say reconciliation is not dead, I really mean it is urgent to revive work on it and persevere until we have true equality and justice in our country. And that will take a long time, many generations. Senator Sinclair, when he was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), said at the end of the TRC hearings that it took Canada 150 years of residential schools to get into the mess we're in and it is going to take time to work our way to true healing.
But each generation can and must play its part. So what is the part of this generation? First and foremost for non-Indigenous people is to educate ourselves. Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg told me at a meeting in Banff last year that he felt the heavy work of reconciliation has to be borne by non-Indigenous people.
"Canadians have to care," he stated. And without really knowing what the truth is, attitudes are unlikely to change. The Canada we have today was built on colonization by people coming from abroad, people who felt they were superior to the original inhabitants, and the vestiges of colonial attitudes are in all our institutions and ways of doing things. We have to look closely at these systems, sometimes letting them fall apart to be built in more just ways.
This pandemic is giving us a pause to raise a lot of questions. Do we want to continue, in my opinion, plundering the natural resources of our land, thus robbing future generations of the means to survive? Is there any chance of reversing or at least slowing environmental degradation without a serious look at the consumer society we live in? Can rebuilding move forward without the active involvement of people who have been left out of decision-making in the past, specifically Indigenous people, people who see their mandate as protectors of Mother Earth? Can anything less than a change of heart, a spiritual awakening to our oneness, a true coming together, resolve these issues?
I believe the principal disease of humanity at this moment, even beyond the pandemic itself, is its disunity. Truly recognizing our unity as a human race is the only basis for true reconciliation. The unity I am speaking about is unity in diversity, so that the precious cultural heritage and languages, as well as Indigenous ways of knowing in multiple fields, will be preserved and make their contribution to the future world civilization that can emerge from the challenges of our time.
So, is reconciliation dead? I say absolutely not. Let's get moving.