Canada’s 150th birthday takes a solemn tone, juxtaposed against a festive atmosphere, as the country’s Indigenous people mourn the atrocities committed by the Canadian government.
To reconcile, however, doesn’t mean to transform relationships with just the government. For Chief Robert Joseph, member of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and co-founder of Reconciliation Canada, reconciliation is a bold vision that calls on all Canadians to come together.
“One of the important perspectives that we’ve always held as Reconciliation Canada is the idea that reconciliation is not just between Aboriginal people and the federal government or provincial government. It’s an issue that belongs to all of us,” says Joseph.
He quotes the 2016 national survey released by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, which shows more than eight out of 10 non-Indigenous Canadians express a clear desire to be part of reconciliation with the Indigenous.
“Here we are in a moment when all Canadians and all Indigenous people are working together to create balance and harmony between ourselves,” says Joseph. “All of us are reaching together to foster and encourage reconciliation.”
To that end, the Walk for Reconciliation, which follows a route from Cambie Street and Georgia Street to Strathcona Park will happen on Sept. 24. The Walk will feature Indigenous and multicultural performances and a keynote speech.
Racism is the most harmful barrier
Joseph had a long struggle with the past, as one of 150,000 Indigenous children who suffered abuse at residential schools.
“The shared history was very violent at times and very broken. And that created the division, inequality, poverty, trauma, anger, dysfunction, economic disparity, marginalization,” says Joseph.
For him, racism is the root of the aforementioned problems and the most harmful barrier to reconciliation.
“Racism denigrated our very identity and very being. It is not challenged and it continues to be the war, the solid war that separates people just because of colour, just because of language, just because of religion, just because of sexual orientation,” says Joseph.
Aboriginal people are experiencing racism without being given an opportunity to speak for themselves, he says, and so reconciliation is important as a way to educate all Canadians about who the Aboriginal are.
“People who were born into poverty and have no tool to work themselves are deemed to be worthless. That’s a wrong approach. What our approach has to be is that we need to educate each other about who we are as human beings, and that every human being has value and each of us has a responsibility to encourage the manifestation of full value for everybody,” says Joseph.
Reconciliation must not be assimilation
To challenge racism and ultimately reconcile, the 77-year-old insists that all Canadians should embrace diversity.
“I think one of the things that we all have to do is recognize our diversity. There are so many things that contribute to our diversity. We create a new mosaic of Canadians to honour each other no matter what colour, what religion,” says Joseph.
For him, reconciliation is in no way assimilation. Instead, it makes room for Canada’s cultural mosaic.
“In tackling true reconciliation, we must never try to assimilate any of those characteristics to employ where we were almost committing genocide. If we assimilate everything, it’s just an old form of genocide,” says Joseph. “And in reconciliation, we need to move forward the idea that we embrace our diversity and our difference.”
He cites the current political climate as an example. When it comes to decisions made on their land, says Joseph, Indigenous traditions and values shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“As Indigenous people, we have a long-standing view that we’ve held forever that we have a custodial responsibility to the land, to the environment. We have perspectives on balance and farming. Those are ancient, long-standing values that civilization has forgotten far too long. Whatever we do [to the land], we need to find the most sustainable ways to conduct businesses on the land. So that we don’t destroy the integrity of the environment,” says Joseph.