What Is Reconciliation?

Senator Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, discusses what it means to work toward reconciliation in Canada.

Transcript (PDF)

Transcript (Text)

Reconciliation has definitely become this word of the year, word of the decade, I don't know. And we got to reconciliation before we did the truth. And so there's still a lot of truth to be told. Records need to be brought out, need to be brought to the light. There's a lot of things that still can't be accessed.

Reconciliation is a tremendous opportunity. The concept of it, to me, is a tremendous opportunity to create real relationships that are meaningful and life-changing. Recognizing our sovereignty in this country, recognizing our truth, recognizing us as equal human beings who have our own rights, beliefs, cultural values, stories, teachings, histories that are not less than. And that we have the right to be self-determining in a space and place that is our home because we didn't come from anyplace else.

Education is critical in the process of reconciliation moving forward. And the current state of affairs that we are in right now in Canada is that the truth is starting to come out about how indigenous peoples have been treated, how societies have been attacked, and the harms that have been created. This creates a very powerful set of responsibilities for everybody in the society, in the sense that the truth is out there and it is now accessible, and we have to be very honest with ourselves that if we do not fully embrace this truth and do the hard work that is necessary to better understand it, we are actually being complicit in maintaining the state of inequality in this country.

For me, reconciliation has many colors and flavours and shades. And I think as an individual, as a Canadian, I think if you just try to get as much education about what the truths were, then you can become engaged in reconciliation.

Senator Murray Sinclair, who is the Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—he says, before you can get to truth and how to reconcile as a government, as an individual, you have to first decolonize. When you decolonize, it's going to hurt and it's going to be messy, because you're going to have to take everything away and start over. Thinking about that, I also think it's going to be full of anguish as well, as you travel through. This might be the messy part too, part of the messy part, because a lot of people are going to do some soul-searching themselves.

Working in this industry, you see all kinds of people. And we once had religion teachers from a close school district, Catholic district. And they were just speechless at the end of the day. One teacher came up to me and he said, Canada has been built on lies and stolen land. People are just stunned, stunned at this information, people just sitting at tables with their head in their hands, just realizing there's so much they don't know. And I thought, oh, my gosh, that would've never happened 10 years ago, or even five years ago or something. But people are generally angry at what they don't know. And these are hard conversations.

Is it actually going to improve? Are my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren going to have a better life, greater opportunities, a sense of belonging and equality? Are my grandchildren going to be able to retain their identities? Because all that is not part of reconciliation at this point.

We have to think of ways in which to break out of the limitations of this other colonial society and the institutions we formed around it, to try to create space for thinking about territory, thinking about language, thinking about law differently that creates a possibility for plural legal regimes, plural territorial regimes to exist in Canada that don't necessarily.

We're speaking in a language that is not our own. When we're not speaking in our own language., we're not truthfully addressing worldviews and values and ways of knowing that are profoundly impactful. And I'm saying this to you as a non-fluent speaker of my language. And it breaks my heart, because I should be.

We need to get back to heart connections and not head connections. Reconciliation is a head connection. But where does it trickle down to that heart connection so that you can not only hear me, you can feel me? You need to feel where I come from. I come from a long line of people who are always feelers. And the people that I'm creating, I'm guiding them into walking that same walk. Navigate your life with your heart so that you're always truth-walking and truth-talking.

One of the main impediments we see is people say that we need to be realistic or practical. And that's always a conservative status quo-preserving way of framing the issue, that there's certain limitations or barriers to going all the way with reconciliation. And yet I've seen from the indigenous side some very creative ways in which the two regimes may be aligned or at least mutually respectful to one another.

I had a survivor. He was speaking to a group of educators in the room. And that was the question. What do you want us to take back to our classrooms? What do you want them to know about residential school? What should we share? How can they find out what reconciliation means? And he just sort of paused for a minute. He was a very elderly man, and I wasn't sure if he understood the question, but he did. And he lifted his head, and he goes, "Everything that happened to me was the truth." He says, "Just believe that what I told you really happened to me." And I thought, that's brilliant. That's all they want. That's all survivors want is for you to hold space with them and listen and to know that what happened and what they experienced really happened.

We have to include the words in a sound bite of Sir John A. Macdonald saying that we have to remove the children from their homes, from their interned reserves, and send them to a residential school, because if we don't, they'll be only savages who read and write. So we've got to get that savage out of them. And those are the words of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of this country.

Probably what is the problem with the reconciliation is the fact that a lot of people think it's done. Check that box. We've done our cultural competency training, or I've done something, or I've donated money. I've apologized. Let's move on. But we can't.

Because for so long, this country has really been telling indigenous peoples how to live, how to think, what to do, how to operate. And what indigenous peoples have been asking for, for a very long period of time, is the recognized right to self-determine, to set our own path for the future, and to live in a manner that is consistent with our traditional teachings and beliefs and social, political, cultural aspirations.

It's going to take a long time to reconcile, because we've got to unearth and change 150 years. So you can't expect us to do it in five, 10, or 15 years. It's going to be a slow process. Now that we know that indigenous people have human rights, how do we allow all of that to converge and create a framework, a new framework of engagement in consultation, and to share the resources of this country?

The important thing to recognize with reconciliation is that it is at once an individual journey and responsibility and then a collective or an institutional or organizational or national responsibility. And the two cannot happen without one another. I think it's very important that we start at the individual level though, because there is a lot of work that happens at the site of the individual, if you will. That means that we have the ability to change our thoughts, how we act, how we think, how we understand indigenous peoples or non-indigenous peoples. And that is inherently an inward journey. It's actually a process of becoming much more self-aware and much more self-aware of how we have collectively been either educated or, truthfully, mis-educated.

That individual action then extends out to organizational responsibilities or institutional responsibilities. So then the question goes from being, what can I change within myself, to then, what can I change within my sphere of influence or the work that I do? The sum total of those actions will equate to a better and brighter society for us all.

And it's already been done. It's already been laid out. We just have to go back and re-examine it. Haudenosaunee people and Anishinaabe people had pre-European contact agreements on the land with each other, with other nations, and then settlers when they arrived, as well. So the first one made with settlers was called the Two Row Wampum belt or the Guswenta.

Basically what it states is that we can live together. We can live on this land and share this land, but we're going to respect each other as separate nations. We won't try to change each other's laws or beliefs. And so that's illustrated by the two purple rows, one being the non-indigenous and the other one being the indigenous, in their vessels, canoe and ship.

We can live together, but we need to be joined by an agreement, or we'll just veer off or veer into each other. And that agreement is bound by peace, respect, and friendship, that we can respect each other and who we are. We can have our own belief systems, but we need to respect each other as our differences.

And so reconciliation has already been laid out. Had the Two Row been looked at, at what it is which is a founding document of this country, we wouldn't have seen residential schools where they literally plucked our kids out of our canoe and put them in their ship. So to me, reconciliation—it's already been laid out. We just have to look a little bit closer.

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