reconciliation Canada

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The problem with reconciliation in Canada

“Indigenous Peoples are not losers of history asking for the beneficence of a superior people. They’re human beings with a commitment to preserving their own existence, which is a basic human right.”

As another National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is commemorated, recognizing the history and ongoing impacts of Canada’s residential school system, it’s important that we recognize that colonialism — as a system of systemic oppression and discrimination — is still present today.

As a general rule, Canadians don’t like to hear this. In Quebec, resistance to that idea is even stronger, because some insist that British colonialism erased French colonialism. To them, because the French were colonized by the British serves to somehow magically erase the fact that the French were also colonizers.

“If colonization is defined as the intent to take land away, to impose foreign laws and to disrupt culture, if that defines colonization in 1609, it still pretty much defines the relationship today,” writes Kahnawake Mohawk activist and scholar Taiaiake Alfred in his just-released book, It’s All about the Land: Collected Talks and Interviews on Indigenous Resurgence.

“Colonization is not a historical reality,” he continues, “it’s a contemporary political, social, cultural and psychological framework for the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous peoples in countries like Canada. We’re not in a post-colonial society, we’re in a contemporary colonial society.”

According to Alfred, colonial processes are “just as vital, just as ongoing, just as harmful and just as present in the lives of the Indigenous population as they were in the 1600s.”

While some might find such statements controversial (a recent academic colloquium on Quebec colonialism had the usual pundits foaming at the mouth), a quick roundup of news only serves to validate Alfred’s assertions.

As journalist and author Michel Jean tweeted recently, “In the expression ‘Truth and Reconciliation,’ there’s a very important word. The word ‘truth.’ As long as we do not agree on the truth, there is no reconciliation possible.”

‘Disadvantage, dispossession, dislocation’ 

Some inconvenient truths…

Quebec’s Superior Court just authorized a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Atikamekw women who say they were sterilized against their will. There have been at least 22 cases of forced sterilization of First Nations and Inuit women in Quebec since 1980. Many women went in for other medical procedures and came out unknowingly having undergone hysterectomies and tubal ligations. The most recent case was in 2019. 

A similar case of sterilization against an Inuit woman’s knowledge in Yellowknife is also making headlines, with police recently concluding they won’t pursue a criminal investigation into the case. The clear message sent is that these horrific violations to people’s bodily autonomy are not as serious when committed against Indigenous women. 

A recent study by the Public Health Agency of Canada concluded that racism and the lack of primary care providers translate to Indigenous women and girls experiencing poorer health overall compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts. 

Three years since 37-year-old Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven, filmed and livestreamed hospital staff in Joliette making derogatory comments toward her as she lay dying, nothing much has changed according to Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador’s regional chief. He says distrust in the medical system remains. 

In Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada, Dr. Shaheen-Hussain shares multiple examples of unequal treatment that severely penalizes Indigenous communities both in Quebec and across the country. Testifying at the inquiry, Dr. Shaheen-Hussain concluded “medical colonialism killed Joyce Echaquan” and that her death was avoidable.

In Manitoba, not only is there widespread opposition to searching a landfill for the remains of two Indigenous women believed to have been murdered by an alleged serial killer, but Progressive Conservative Party leader Heather Stefanson ran a full-page partisan ad and paid for a campaign billboard promising to “stand firm” on that denial. Not searching for these two women became a central part of her campaign. I doubt something this callously cruel would have been accepted by the general public or even PC partisans if the possible remains of two white women were in that landfill. 

Lawyers representing Inuit children in Nunavik and First Nations children living off-reserve are seeking to launch a class-action lawsuit against both the Canadian and Quebec governments because of inadequate youth protection services.

Two First Nations groups are going to court over Bill 96, Quebec’s language legislation, which they say infringe on their rights to self-determination and to teach children their ancestral languages. 

The RCMP has spent nearly $50-million on policing pipeline and logging standoffs in B.C., and Wet’suwet’en land defenders have been criminalized time and time again in the process.

“Anyone who is concerned about the land,” writes Alfred, “should be concerned with the things that are being done on Native land in the name of Canadians.”

Examples of ongoing settler colonialism are not hard to find… 

Moving beyond reconciliation to decolonization 

In his book, Alfred challenges contemporary ideas around reconciliation and questions what their real purpose is. 

He takes mainstream (often good-faith) assumptions about reconciliation as seen and processed through a colonial filter and turns them on their head. The book forces us to think differently about decolonization and what reconciliation — as currently advocated by the government — really stands for.

“Colonization is usually thought of by settler people as something that happened in times of their ancestors,” writes Alfred. “I think that in both Australia and Canada, there are ongoing processes which continue to disconnect people from land, which continue to disrupt Native families, which continue to undermine the ability of Native people to have healthy lives. If something is doing that, it’s colonial. It’s not historical, it’s not people with felt hats and muskets coming to take land away in some distant colonial era.

“People imagine that because we are now Indigenous Peoples in universities, […] that we drive cars and live in single-family dwellings that resemble everyone else’s, that colonization is in the past,” he continues. 

Alfred says Indigenous communities continue to be defined as the problem. “The problems that our people are suffering — lack of clean drinking water, substandard housing, all of the social and psychological challenges that our people face — were seen to be a failure on the part of our people to adapt to the natural reality of the development of modern society.”

While most Canadians understand the need to reflect on our dark past and make amends, many resist it. Some even stubbornly deny the damage residential schools have caused and seek to minimize it. Real amends, of course, require real reparations and ceding some of our privilege. Words are easy to come by and land acknowledgments can quickly become performative. While some meaningful progress has been made and some argue the settlement process has indeed been accelerated, continued government litigation against survivors of residential schools shows we still have a long way to go.

For Alfred, reconciliation remains flawed, because it asks us to work within the framework of colonialism to solve a colonial problem.

“Indigenous Peoples are not losers of history asking for the beneficence of a superior people,” he writes. “They’re human beings with a commitment to preserving their own existence, which is a basic human right.” ■

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.