I’ve been pondering this issue for some time and it seems clear to me that reconciliation is not the word we should be using to describe the relationship the Canadian governments, and we as a whole, have with indigenous peoples in Canada today.
Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines reconciliation as “the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.” Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the reality is that the Canadian Government has never been particularly friendly towards indigenous people in this country. How can the Canadian government then make friends with indigenous people when they never were friends in the first place?
There was never a ‘disagreement’ between the Canadian Government and the hundreds of indigenous nations on this land we call Canada, which also extend into one of the other colonial countries on this continent. During the French regime, there was some coöperation between the colonial administration and some of the indigenous nations on the north shore of the St.Laurence river. However, there was no doubt that the values of the colonial administrators and indigenous leaders often clashed. Indigenous people were quite understandably taken with copper pots after having to cook their food by throwing hot rocks into cedar containers filled with water and victuals. They were happy to trade beaver pelts for them and for firearms. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the colonial administrators undermined the indigenous way of life using the Recollet and Jesuit clergy who promised the indigenous people trade goods if they were to convert to Catholicism. Many did.
Of course, events and circumstances in the French Regime were not ‘Canadian’ events. The British took over from the French what we now call Canada in 1763. They let the colony govern itself after 1867 but had by then instituted an Indian Affairs Department which was perpetuated by the colonial Canadian administration of John A. Macdonald and his cronies after Confederation. By 1876 they passed the Indian Act to clearly cement the master/slave relationship that has lasted ever since.
Obviously, many indigenous people as individuals have often succeeded in their chosen endeavours as lawyers, fishers, business people, university professors, administrators, elected officials, carpenters, plumbers, social workers, etc., but individual success does not deny the collective degradation that colonial powers have consistently tried to burden them with historically. The fact that reserves exist and are legally owned by the federal government, the fact that the statistics on poverty, mental illness, suicide, etc., demonstrate that as a group, indigenous people have suffered immense harm over the course of Canadian history. You would have to be a hardcore bigot to argue that collectively indigenous people are inferior to white folk as a means of explaining their poor statistical profile. Unfortunately, our culture, our societies, our political structures including our cities, police forces, and courts are built on the tacit assumption of indigenous inferiority.
Over the last 150 years, indigenous leaders have challenged the colonial arrangement that governed their lives. They signed treaties, fought battles with firearms and resisted in many ways. Every time the government felt the least bit threatened by ‘uppity Indians’ it passed amendments to the Indian Act further restricting the movements and activities of indigenous peoples. The potlatch ban, pass laws and the overarching presence of the Indian agent made for difficult times for indigenous people. Still, they never gave up. They faced racism and discrimination, marginalization and exploitation of the worst kind. There were exceptions, of course. There always are.
Now, indigenous leaders, most of them using great restraint and patience, are looking for recognition of traditional culture and ways of life and the revitalization of their languages, but they’re also looking for a better economic deal than they’ve ever had, and its working. New treaties are being signed and new relationships with the federal government are being forged with indigenous people no longer willing to take whatever crumbs the Canadian government offers. They are no longer interested in tokenism and false promises and they have lawyers.
What this amounts to is ‘conciliation’ not ‘reconciliation’. It’s a tribute to indigenous communities all over this country that their preferred way of negotiating is respectful and patient. We need to learn from them. What really strikes me is that indigenous success in business and other ventures will enrich us all.
Conciliation is a process that is slowly happening now. Reconciliation was never possible and is not even realistic given the colonial history of this country. The word implies a past where we all got along splendidly and for some reason grew apart. Anybody who believes that has been living in a dream world or in Tierra Del Fuego. We need to talk about conciliation, not reconciliation. More than that, we have to live conciliation with patience and love.