Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
You may have heard the word “Reconciliation”. It gets tossed around quite a bit. And, even if you don’t know quite what it means, it probably sounds like a good idea. After all, to reconcile is, “To restore to peace or unity” (“reconcile, v.”). Given the residential schools’ terrible legacy, peace or unity are clearly lacking. Perhaps they were never there to begin with. Putting that aside, what do people really mean by “Reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? And is there anything you can do to get involved? (Spoiler: yes, there is). To inform this article, I mostly drew from interviews with people involved with Circles for Reconciliation, as well as my own experience there.
What is Reconciliation? Well, different definitions abound, so it is little wonder if you are confused. One of my interviewees, Anne Lin Arghirescu, called it “understanding,” with “an acknowledgement of Canada’s history”. Another, Tammy Cadue, focussed on “acknowledging all Indigenous folks, regardless of blood quantum”. According to Raymond Currie, founder of Circles for Reconciliation, the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) has defined Reconciliation as: “the creation and maintenance of mutually respectful relationships”. In other words, Reconciliation boils down to two main things: Partnership and Respect.
Arguably, neither Partnership nor Respect are truly possible without first understanding the other side. Perhaps it is possible to work together, and behave politely, in ignorance. However, I would argue that true partnership and respect go deeper, and require more. As such, many feel that education is an essential component of Reconciliation. This education can entail learning to understand individuals, but it might be more significant insofar as it relates to big themes, like history and culture. The role that Reconciliation has the potential to play in the Canadian education system is something I’d like to discuss in more depth. For now, I think it suffices to say that a better understanding of the history of residential schools, the Indian Act, etc. is vital to all of us. Reconciliation is also sometimes described as “healing a broken trust”.
As I mentioned, I learnt about Reconciliation on a personal level when I participated in a Circle for Reconciliation. Almost exclusively volunteer-led, this organization brings six Indigenous and six non-Indigenous individuals together, during an hour each week, for ten weeks. Its goal, more than anything, is to create mutually respectful relationships – the small-scale manifestation of Reconciliation. To take this even further, the organization itself is owned and led by Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders. They attempt to embody “full and equal partnership” in every decision they make.
Raymond Currie founded Circles for Reconciliation in Manitoba after he read the TRC’s 2015 preliminary report. He himself is an able-bodied, heterosexual, non-Indigenous, white man. When I spoke to him, he was very cognizant of the advantages, or privilege, that he derives from his position. When he initially presented his ideas to some Indigenous groups, he was asked, quite bluntly, “Why do we need an old white guy to come and save us?”
“Well,” he replied. “I’m certainly old, and, as you can see, I’m certainly white. But, I’m not here to save you. I just think we need to be partners if we’re going to bring about Reconciliation.”
Ultimately, this is what makes Reconciliation so powerful: it concerns everyone; no one is left out. Yes, Indigenous voices need to be at the forefront of this movement, but this is only going to work if everyone gets involved. The fact that I am white, and privileged, and clueless in certain ways is not an excuse to sit back and do nothing. It is as good a reason as any to act.
The recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked bodies in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have revealed genocide in its most concrete, irrevocable form. Perhaps you also feel as though you need to act. But what can you do?
At the grassroots level, there are so many different things one can do. For instance, one of my interviewees, Tammy Cadue, was involved in a bunch of different organizations – Circles for Reconciliation, Ontario Coalition of Indigenous Peoples, and the Eighth Fire Alliance Community Centre, to name a few. Furthermore, she partook in a Peace March in London, Ontario on July 1st. This march brought together thousands of people in recognition of the genocide committed by residential schools. Throughout her work, Tammy Cadue has worked to end violence, and sow unity. What struck me during our interview was her optimism. She was excited to see a shift away from acts of violence, towards more peaceful and inclusive deeds, which she hopes will bring about greater change. She also had a lot of hope for the younger generation.
Naturally, we can’t all be quite as involved as Tammy Cadue. There are different levels of engagement for everyone. What is essential is that Reconciliation become “a way of life” – or a mindset, which informs the things we say and do. Committing to Reconciliation means “unlearning and learning,” but also “building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability” (Dennis). It is not so much about grand, infrequent gestures, as small things you can do consistently. Like checking your biases, thinking about how your perspective differs from others, and considering how someone else might respond differently.
How do you start?
According to Raymond Currie, the biggest obstacle to Reconciliation today is ignorance. Many young people care a lot, but do not know what to do (“Canadian Public Opinion”). Of course, you don’t have to become an impassioned advocate. You can start small. Read a book. Have a conversation. Skim through a blog post or two.
If you’re interested in doing just a little more, I’d personally recommend reaching out to Circles for Reconciliation:
For other more specific ideas, they’ve compiled a list of “Actions You Can Take on Reconciliation” near the bottom of the following page:
“Canadian Public Opinion on Aboriginal Peoples.” Circles for Reconciliation, 2021, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/gathering-theme-public-opinion/.
Dennis, Mary Kate et al. “After the Circles: Practicing Solidarity and Living Reconciliation.” Circles for Reconciliation, August 2020, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/gathering-theme-after-the-circles-practicing-solidarity-and-living-reconciliation/.
“reconcile, v.” OED Online, Oxford UP, June 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/159773.
About the Author:
Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.