This is the 20th anniversary of the day marked for recognizing and celebrating the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, as well as a chance to reflect on a way forward
As a nation, Canada has always meant to stand for some significant core values – for being just, caring, inclusive and equal – yet what has come to light is “a shared history that has been horrific,” says Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation. “We’ve realized that we haven’t done enough to live up to our own ideals.”
Still, Joseph sees no reason to despair – on the contrary. “I believe we’ve never seen a moment in our history in Canada where there is so much hope, optimism and commitment to finding a new way of living and moving forward together,” he says. “Canadians across the country are embracing reconciliation like never before.”
This shared desire is evident in a recent poll conducted by the Environics Institute, where more than eight in 10 of those surveyed said they believe individual Canadians have a role to play in helping to bring about reconciliation. The findings mirror Joseph’s experiences travelling across the country as co-founder of Reconciliation Canada, a charitable organization dedicated to creating dialogue and revitalizing the relationship of aboriginal peoples and all Canadians.
“I’ve been talking to people of every colour and creed, every socio-economic status, every gender – everyone is interested in the idea of reconciling,” he says. “As a country, this is our deepest and most exciting challenge.”
Joseph believes reconciliation starts within ourselves, then extends to family, community and nation. “We can’t give away reconciliation if we don’t have it on our own lives,” he explains. “No one completely escapes trauma. And if that trauma is unresolved and doesn’t heal, it has consequences and leads to brokenness and despair.”
This is a message that comes from Joseph’s personal experience. “I was in a residential school and I suffered abuse in every form. I came out broken and ended up in addiction,” he says. “When I had no more hope in my life and couldn’t fathom staying in that situation, that’s when I had a vision.”
In his vision, Joseph was told that he was loved, that he was part of creation, he recalls.
“I realized that I had to find a way to forgive myself for my subsequent behaviour – for acting out after residential school.”
With learning to love himself and feeling connected came the desire that everyone, especially children and youth, would have the same opportunity, says Joseph. “We all should have a sense of purpose and feel valued. When we were little, we didn’t get any of that at school – that was a debilitating experience.
“It’s hard to understand why we’ve come so far down the road of separation,” says Joseph, who adds that he is pleased with the progress towards reconciliation that is currently being made. “For example, our prime minister has committed to address all 94 calls to action recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he says.
Additional recent milestones include the government’s promise to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Daniel decision that recognizes Métis and non-status Indians under the jurisdiction of the federal government, and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that recommends increasing the funding and support to allow First Nations to deliver their own child welfare, says Joseph.
“All this is going to create a lot of healing in aboriginal communities,” he explains. “From the recognition of the things that have created huge disparities between aboriginal people and others comes a growing willingness to correct them and atone.”
In addition to the commitments of the federal government, Joseph has seen many actions in communities across the country. “We are not going to transform the country unless all of us are engaged. The most important reconciliation will be at home, with our community and neighbours,” he explains. “More and more of us recognize we have to do something, we can’t just stay angry and pound the tables.”
The results will be worth the effort, says Joseph. “When we are reconciled, we will live in a harmonious and peaceful society, have equal access to amenities and share the prosperity and wealth in this great country. When we are reconciled, we will become the country and nation that we have always wanted to be.”