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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I Believe Her

Innocent until proven guilty. This is the foundational presumption of our justice system. This is the normative, intentional bias we have structurally embedded in our conception of justice to protect the wrongly accused. It is central to our legal definition of human rights itself.

But presumed innocence has a inherent side effect. It structurally imposes a bias of its own. It presumes the accuser must be lying. For as long as we presume the innocence of the accused, we are predisposed to suspect the integrity and honesty of the plaintiff. In a sense, to presume the innocence of a perpetrator means concurrently assuming the victim bears ‘inverse guilt’ for making a (presumed) falsified accusation.

Applying a gender lens to this inverse guilt is critical. For example, when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault, she steps forward not only as the victim of an act of violence against her body but as one who must now internalize this inverse guilt. As far as the legal system and public opinion is concerned, speaking up equates to everyone assuming she has fabricated her story — at least until her charge is proven. But how does one prove all sexual misdemeanors “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Who can trust a legal system biased explicitly on the defendant’s innocence to rule in your favor regarding an incident that occurred in private or behind closed doors?

Presumed innocence favours the denial of wrongdoing above the declaration of wrongdoing. And so it should. No one wants to live in legal system that allows a single, flippant accusation to destroy their life and family overnight. Such a system clearly provides no legal protection for anyone at all. But the problem is that the protection we all supposedly enjoy under the presumption of innocence also produces a legal climate and culture of law enforcement systemically incentivized to manifest at least some degree of victim blaming — the disproportionate burden of which is borne by women.

The question, I think, is whether or not we can simultaneously assume the innocence of the accused and the honesty of the accuser? Are we capable of such nuance? It seems to me that until the claimant’s character are assumed as innocent as the defendant’s actions, we will continue to replicate a system that serves men above than women. We need to figure out a way to normalize the paradox of saying “I believe her” while simultaneously protecting all of us from a nightmarish dystopia where all it takes is an accusation to prove your guilt once and for all. I’m not sure how we get there from where we are today, but trusting and believing victims must be a first step to bringing some equilibrium to a very unbalanced arrangement at present.

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My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

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