Above: A full house for the panel discussion on the call to action of Canada’s TRC and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People at VIU on November 2

By contributor Chantelle Spicer

Our society moves from one buzzword to the next: “organic,” “sustainable,” “green,” “growth,” and now, here in Canada, we have “reconciliation,” which I greet with open arms. Its meaning reaches far beyond its dictionary definition to exceeding social effects and redefining history, Canadian identity, and how we can relate to the land and all people on it. It is spoken by the voices of CBC, our government, the general public, and people of all ethnicities—it is a part of our current social psyche and it is incredibly exciting. But what is it exactly and where is it taking us?

Reconciliation is rooted in recognizing and healing historical truths regarding the relationship between settler societies, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit populations across the country. These are truths that are painful, uncomfortable, and earth shattering; histories which are insidious and deceitful, histories which harm Canada as a community. These are truths that stem from colonization and the ideals that drive it, the creation of the “other” of our Indigenous peoples, the acknowledgement of the harm done by residential schools, and the legacy this carries. From this need to recognize the damage done by the past, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created in 2010 “as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy. [It] is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing.”

Reconciliation: When former enemies agree to amicable truce

With this goal, the TRC traveled to all corners of the country, hearing the truths of individuals willing to tell their stories of survival in the face of what has been deemed cultural genocide. Hosting seven national events, the Commission worked to engage not only Indigenous peoples, but all Canadians as work was done to understand our history and provide education on how this affects our current situation. After years of testimony—6740 witnesses and 1355 hours of tape regarding the inter-generational pains caused by colonization—the TRC released their final report on June 2 to recommend ways that we can begin to repair the relationships between indigenous people and the rest of Canada. It indicates that this relationship needs to be viewed differently in all levels of society, from government to schools, from hospitals to churches.

Societal shifts of this magnitude do not happen overnight— or even in years—nor do they happen without guidance. Our new government is full of hope and promises of a more integrated Canada, but, as the Indigenous epistemic system teaches us, it is only through community that change is managed—in this case, global community.

The United Nations (UN) has been undertaking a framework of protection and rights entitled the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) since 1982, making it the most discussed international instrument for justice in the history of the UN. Created by Indigenous peoples around the world as well as the states involved in the UN, it emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain their own cultures, traditions, and pursue their own development as sovereign peoples. The goal of this declaration is to encourage countries to work alongside their Indigenous peoples to the benefit of all— culturally, economically, and socially. UNDRIP is solidly placed as the framework to set in motion the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the recommendations put forward by Canada’s TRC.

UNDRIP was officially adopted by the UN in September 2007, with 143 countries voting in favour of its adoption and four against—the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In fact, since 2006, Canada has made official public statements directly attacking the foundations of the Declaration, stating that it conflicts with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially Section 35 which deals specifically with the enshrinement of Aboriginal treaty rights. By signing onto UNDRIP, Canada would be in a position where historical land claims could be re-opened and reviewed under human rights regulations. This is a realistic concern for the foundations of Canada as shown by the Confederation of Human Rights, which reviewed the treaties of various countries and found them all to be violated. In terms of the current Indigenous political paradigm of Canada, UNDRIP was poised as a powerful tool which could be used to reinforce rights in treaty negotiations. Finally, in November 2010, under pressure of other states with the UN, Canada signed on, supporting the spirit of the document, while stressing the fact that it bore no legal obligation.

Here in our own corner of Canada, with few treaties and the loud voices of Indigenous justice, these national and global movements sound like times of change. This represents a moment of time in Canada where we can truly begin to shift relationships between the government and First Nations, where all of society can redefine how we see one another. Here at VIU, there is a call to indigenize the academy, especially due to its presence on traditional Snuneymuxw territory. This year, we have seen two totem poles raised in front of Shq’apthut, bldg 170; as well as the creation of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation within our own library walls. On November 2, VIU, the Treaty Centre, and Shq’apthut hosted a panel discussion on how the TRC and UNDRIP can be applied. Speakers included Jennifer Preston, who supported both initiatives; Paul Joffe, a specialist in human rights for Indigenous peoples who was actively involved in the creation of UNDRIP; and Craig Benjamin, of Amnesty International, in regards to Indigenous human rights. Leading the evening was Douglas White, member and former chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation.

The evening began with White stating how important initiatives like these are not only important to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, but for all citizens of Canada to begin to heal the truth of our national identity, leading to true justice for all people. “As Canadians, we are perpetuating denial of our history by not acknowledging these issues,” he said. As the evening unfolded, issues discussed included the trials of litigation for First Nations, which remove financial resources from the people who truly need them; the removal of children from their families, which now rivals the numbers seen at the height of residential schools and the ‘60s scoop; generational harm caused by institutionalized racism; and where we go from here in terms of how the government will react to the ruling of the TRC.

As hard as this material is to face, it is through discomfort that we are able to question the current paradigm and create change. Much harm has been done to our nation, but this generation is not the one that caused it—we should not feel shame for things done prior to our birth; however, we should feel shame if we recognize and perpetuate colonial ideas and do nothing. We need to have the rights of all people recognized at all levels of Canadian society—government, economic, and social—and begin to heal the wounds of the people, of our cultures, of our history, and of our land. What we have before us are policies, standards, and frameworks, but this is not what creates an atmosphere of reconciliation. It is within us—individually, as a community, and as a nation—to create a new reality through which we can grow together. We are, once again, at the beginning.