Reconciliation ‘a Canadian problem,’ says Sinclair

Published February 15, 2011

Reconciliation must happen at the individual, community, institution and societal level, says Marlene Castellano, professor emeritus at Trent University. Photo: Marites N. Sison

What does reconciliation mean between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada? Why is it important? What can be done to achieve it?

These were some questions that aboriginal and non-aboriginal leaders in academia, government, youth and other sectors tackled at a recent conference on organized by the University of Toronto and the National Centre for First Nations Governance.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), said Canadians need to get involved in the reconciliation process because “this is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem.”

The issue of reconciliation, which the TRC is pursuing as part of its mandate, must be discussed within the context of decolonization, said Sinclair. “We need to ask ‘Where are we now? How did we get here? What do we do about it?'”

The TRC is part of a revised and court-approved Indian residential schools agreement negotiated in 2006 between former students, churches [including the Anglican Church of Canada], the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal groups. It aims to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences, and to set the historical record straight about the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation of native people through the residential schools.

Sinclair said Canadians need to have a “national memory” about how the relationship between Europeans and the First Peoples of Canada evolved over time from one of mutual respect and co-existence to exploitation and eventually, legislated domination. This was the history that gave rise to residential schools, whose goal was to eliminate native language and culture, he said.

Canadians need to understand that while native children in residential schools were being taught “that their cultures were invalid…that their ancestors were heathens and pagans…that they were inferior,” said Sinclair. At the same time, he pointed out, non-aboriginal children were taught to believe the same about native people. This gave rise to generations of native children who believed they were inferior, and non-natives, most of them now in positions of power, who were raised to think they were superior. As long as these negative stereotypes and racist beliefs continue, “conversation will not be a conversation of respect,” said Sinclair.

Sinclair said the TRC has asked all parties to the schools agreement to dig deeper into the issue of reconciliation by asking them, “What is it that you want to attain by doing this? What’s the nature of the relationship that you want to have with the other party to the reconciliation process?”

Marlene Brant Castellano, a Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte and professor emeritus of Trent University, said reconciliation must take place at the individual, community, institution and societal level.

Castellano, who served as co-director of research with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, said language and varying interpretations of reconciliation often challenges the process.

Reconciliation as a concept often comes to the fore in government departments in times of conflict “with the purpose of buying peace,” she said. “How do we avoid the eruption of violence such as Oka or Caledonia? How do we deflect the expense and embarrassment of a residential class action lawsuit?”

Reconciliation in an unbalanced power relationship often means “reconcile yourself to the place that we’ve assigned to you,” she said.

Reconciliation, which aims to mend a relationship that’s broken, “requires action by all parties to engage in processes of acknowledgement, redress and healing,” said Castellano.

Castellano expressed doubts as to whether government or Canadians are “ready to examine the historical and continuing narrative that denies First Nations, Inuit and Metis people a place at the table.” It is also a narrative that portrays aboriginal people as “burdens, that we are fighting to take away something that’s going to cost everybody far too much,” she said. ‘It is difficult to get across the message that what we are really working for is common ground and renewed relationship.”

Achieving recognition of aboriginal rights is essential if individual, community and societal healing and reconciliation is to take place, said Castellano.

Aboriginal people “understand that a more balanced, respectful relationship with non-aboriginal society is needed. Let’s face it, we’re all here to stay,” she said. “But [they] are skeptical about speaking events that promise reconciliation but don’t seem to change reality.”

Herb George, president and founder of the National Centre for First Nations Governance, said reconciliation will happen if a level of “government to government relationship” is achieved between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. The challenge is to make the Canadian public understand that “whether they like it or not, we are in a new era as far as aboriginal relationships are concerned in this country.”

Supreme Court decisions that recognize aboriginal and treaty rights “have cleared the way for us,” said George. “We have the right to govern ourselves, to govern our lands…the rights of First Nations people, be they treaty or aboriginal rights, are special rights. They’re constitutionally protected and recognized rights…”

Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie said the reconciliation of aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples is the biggest problem facing the country and yet, it is not an issue that’s on the radar of most Canadians. “If you ask many Canadians they don’t feel guilty. They don’t regret the grievances dating back to the arrival of Europeans on this shores,” said Binnie. “They feel that an apology and some compensation is required and that we should all move forward as undifferentiated Canadians.”

However, the reality is that a new era of Crown and aboriginal relations is dawning because of Supreme Court decisions that recognize aboriginal and treaty rights, said Binnie.

Binnie recalled that in the 1960s, courts were “incredulous” whenever native people asserted their treaty rights because they were seen as “largely unenforceable and could be written off at will by Parliament.” The notion of reconciliation then was that “native people should reconcile with the notion of becoming non-native people,” he said.

Over time, several landmark decisions by the Supreme Court have affirmed that First Nations people have rights over and above those came from other parts of the world and that “there is something unique about First Nations by reason of their occupation since time immemorial of these lands and also as being the founding culture of Canada,” said Binnie.

Binnie said he is heartened that many First Nations people have moved away from the concept of “apartness” and that the Royal Commission of Canada had endorsed the idea of a “merged sovereignty” between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. “It is not us, the non-aboriginals, and them, the aboriginals, but we are all part of the founding cultures of this country,” he said.

But reconciliation should allow for room “in our constitution, our legal system and our culture, for aboriginal people to be original,” said Binnie.


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