An Interrogation of ‘Reconciliation’

What does ‘Reconciliation’ mean for an individual Canadian like me?

The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.

A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.

Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.

In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.

Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.

Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’

I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.

It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.

As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.

I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time

Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.

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Who is served by the reconciliation agenda?

On Friday, March 24, 2017, I heard a lecture by Glen Coulthard at the Organizing Equality conference.

Coulthard’s thesis is that the contemporary colonizing nation-state (in this case, Canada) lives in a contradiction. On one hand, the state is sovereign over its the people, resources, and land. On the other hand, the state simultaneously recognizes the presence and rights of indigenous peoples, its historical role in colonization, and the treaties it has signed along the way. Now the nation-state, the Crown, has a dilemma: how does it continue to extract the resources it wants or requires to compete in the global arena of nation-states? At the end of the day, posits Coulthard, the state can march in and overtly take the resources it wants by force, or it can manufacture a narrative of reconciliation that functions as a political distraction to its inherent economic/resource agenda.

From another talk (November 16, 2011) by Glen Coulthard on YouTube:

Since at least the early 1990s a global industry has emerged promoting the issuing of state-orchestrated apologies, advocating ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ as an important precondition for resolving the devastating social impacts caused by intrastate violence, state perpetuated mass atrocity, and historical injustice.

Coulthard and others argue that the proliferation of so-called ‘Reconciliation Inc’ has a systemically negative impact on indigenous rights. Referring to the work of Leanne Simpson, Coulthard writes:

In the end, the optics created by these grand gestures of recognition and reconciliation suggests to the dominant society that we no longer have a legitimate ground to stand on in expressing our grievances. Instead, Indigenous people appear unappreciative, angry, and resentful… (Coulthard 2014:153-4)

Coulthard et al argue that the politics of indigenous recognition, as trumpeted by liberal democracies the world over, ultimately serve the political interests of states, not indigenous people.

All this raises some provocative questions we all need to wrestle with, like whose agenda is served by reconciliation? Perhaps the only way to begin answering the question is to investigate who is driving the reconciliation agenda. Power is power — and the principal interest of power is maintaining its power — even when it shows up tenderly announcing its heartfelt concern for your identity and apologies for its legacy and history. What better way to keep power centralized than to remind everyone dispensing reconciliation is the prerogative of whoever owns the power in the first place?

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Reconciliation Between Whom?

There are lingering disconnects in my mind when it comes to the discussions of truth and reconciliation in Canada. As an observer, it seems like there is a critical gap between the federal government’s politics/optics of reconciliation on the one hand and the policies that affect the lives of indigenous communities on the other.

To put it bluntly: what does it mean when you are at one moment declaring that “No relationship is more important…than the one with Indigenous Peoples” and in the next moment building a pipeline through their lands against their protests?

Don’t get me wrong, listening and learning from one another in a spirit of reconciliation seems critically important to me, but what good is ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ if you are simultaneously exploiting the resources and poisoning the land of your interlocutor?

I had the opportunity to hear Margaret Buist (Director General for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) speak in London a few weeks ago. During the question and answer period, I brought up this apparent discrepancy and asked for her perspective. Her response was interesting.

She pointed that the federal government is a vast and complex institution. On any given issue, there are competing forces within the system. Ergo while one branch of the government may very well prioritize respect for the nation-to-nation status and autonomy of indigenous communities, another branch may be more concerned with, say, the Canada’s competitive status in the global economy. In other words, it’s entirely plausible that the department of Indigenous Affairs and, say, the Ministry of Natural Resources, or the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, might have competing ideas for how ‘the government’ should conduct its business. After all, what is a bureaucracy if not an establishment of conflicting agendas? And what is more bureaucratic than a federal government?

Upon reflection, Buist’s reply raises more questions for me. What would systemic reconciliation even look like? What would it mean to structurally ‘decolonize’ the agenda of every branch, department, and ministry of the institution that has driven the agenda of colonization from the beginning?

What does reconciliation mean if one or more of the parties are not even reconciled with themselves? Between what, or between whom, is reconciliation being made? In the long run, what is more important: reconciliation between First Nation communities and the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, or between First Nation communities and, perhaps, the Ministry of Natural Resources?

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