So you watched Gord Downie’s Secret Path on the CBC, are newly aware of the residential school system and just don’t know what to do with this knowledge. What is reconciliation? What can you, a non-Indigenous person, do to help?
There’s a lot to learn, and there is a lot of difficult work to do. It’s important to know that some Indigenous people are uncomfortable with the term ‘reconciliation’ – it implies that there is a positive nation-to-nation relationship to return to, but some people believe that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have never been on great terms, and it’s new, positive relationships that need to be formed.
Before you start reaching out to Indigenous people and asking them to reconcile with you, there are some tangible things you can do to support them. It is important that you go forth in your reconciliatory journey with a respectful attitude. Accept that you are going to make mistakes and put your foot in your mouth sometimes, especially if you are just learning about the history of colonization and Indigenous relations in Canada. Accept that centuries of cultural genocide have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Indigenous people, and they may not be interested in reconciling with you, especially if you’re sliding into their Twitter DMs asking desperately what you can do, and reminding them that #NotAllWhitePeople are bad.
Here are some positive steps you can take right now to engage in reconciliation:
Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings
This is a big undertaking, but it’s important. The TRC spent years collecting stories from survivors of residential schools, examining the causes and impacts of the church-run, government-funded school system.
The Summary of the Final Report is long, but offers a complete view of the legacy of the residential school system. A Knock On The Door from the University of Manitoba Press offers the essential history of residential schools in book form. This book combines survivor stories, TRC findings and the path forward to reconciliation.
Most importantly: READ THE CALLS TO ACTION! The TRC presented 94 Calls to Action based on their findings. They include important actions such as starting an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, and reforming the child welfare system that disproportionately discriminates against Indigenous children. These calls to action are literally the steps toward reconciliation, so… read ‘em! There’s even a challenge, if that gets you more interested.
After reading the report and calls to action, start asking yourself how you can implement them into your daily life, in your workplace, at your school, etc. Reach out to your local, provincial and federal political representatives and find out what they are doing to implement reconciliatory action. Pressure those representatives into further action.
The TRC calls for the implementation of UNDRIP as the framework for reconciliation. This report is much shorter than the TRC report and calls to action, and should take you no time at all to read and absorb.
Learn the history of relations between Indigenous people, Canadians and the government
A good place to start is with Chelsea Vowel’s book Indigenous Writes and the rich footnotes she uses for reference. This book is a crash course in the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada from first contact until now. Learn about Treaties, Indian Status and the Indian Act, cultural appropriation, blood quantum and more. The book also features a great myth busting section, which will have you questioning and re-evaluating biases you may have had towards Indigenous people in the past.
Support Indigenous artists and storytellers
Gord Downie has done a good job of opening the eyes of the general population about Chanie Wenjack and how residential schools disrupted generations of Indigenous people with cultural genocide. However, Indigenous people have been telling these stories for decades, and it took a white man telling an Indigenous tragedy to make white people pay attention. This is a societal bias that will be hard to break, so make sure you do better by listening to Indigenous voices going forward. Here are some starting points:
Donate your money
Groups and organizations across the country, including Friendship Centres, youth groups and women’s shelters, are working towards reconciliation, and have been for years. These groups strive to improve the lives of Indigenous people, to empower them, to help them live healthily, to parent healthily, and to break cycles of violence, poverty and abuse. One way to help in the reconciliation process is to help these groups and organizations do their vital work. You can donate money if you’re able, or donate your time by volunteering. To find organizations, programs and services in your community, check out the New Journeys searchable database.
As you move forward with reconciliation, there are some things to keep in mind:
Residential schools have all been closed. This does not mean that injustices against Indigenous people are over. Make it your mission to learn about the effects of intergenerational trauma, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Sixties and millennial scoops, the government’s violation of human rights in discriminating against Indigenous children…. One only has to pick up a newspaper to learn about the lasting negative effects of colonialism on Indigenous people.
In that same vein, remember that these events are traumatic and continue to affect Indigenous people. Avoid re-traumatizing them by asking them to speak about their negative experiences. Some survivors of residential schools went their entire lives without telling anyone about what happened in the schools, and it’s not up to you to get them to share. Have empathy as you engage in the history and present of Indigenous communities.
Perhaps most notably, remember that Indigenous people are still here, and they survived ongoing persecution for a reason: their resilience. Celebrate their accomplishments. Support their businesses. Hire them and work with them. Amplify their voices. Donate to their organizations. Listen to their stories.