British Columbia·Reconcile This

What does reconciliation mean to Indigenous people?

Reconciliation has become a buzzword over the last few years, but it has also become the center of debate among Indigenous people. CBC's Reconcile This columnist Angela Sterritt spoke to Indigenous people across B.C. about what's missing from the conversation and the hope for 2019.

If it means friendly relations or equal access, a new word is needed, leaders say

Sandlanee Gid is an instructor of Reconciliation Studies at the University of British Columbia and the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society. In this picture she and her niece Aayla Smith, on the left, witness the raising of Chief IIdansuu's Jim Hart's Reconciliation Pole at UBC. (Crystal Smith )

Reconciliation has emerged as a buzzword in Canada over the last three years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even proclaimed a national day of reconciliation in 2018. He's also pushed his Indigenous rights recognition framework and stirred debate on ending or "decolonizing" the 1876 Indian Act, which gave Ottawa control over most aspects of Indigenous life, from health and education to land.

However, much like the relationship it aims to fix, there is uncertainty about the concept of reconciliation among some Indigenous people in Canada.

Sandlanee Gid, her traditional name, is an instructor of Reconciliation Studies through the University of British Columbia and the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society. 

She struggles with the very meaning of the word.

"Reconciliation means that you had a good relationship to begin with and then you're reconciling the relationship, in particular with the Canadian government," she said.

"But the relationship has never been good," Sandlanee Gid said from her home in Haida Gwaii.  

Sandlanee Gid dancing and throwing rocks in the chasm where the Chief IIdansuu's Jim Hart's Reconciliation Pole would go, at UBC. (Sandlanee Gid)

She pointed to the more than 250 Canadian court cases that Indigenous people have won — something lawyer and author Bill Gallagher has outlined in his book Resource Reckoning to be released later this year.

She also said many Indigenous people don't have access to basic human rights like clean drinking water, safety and education, which other Canadians enjoy, arguing this is evidence that there is not a positive relationship to this day.

Conciliation or Reconciliation?

What's needed first, Sandlanee Gid and others argue, is a process of conciliation — which the Oxford dictionary describes as "the action of mediating between two disputing people or groups" — before reconciliation can occur.

Joanne Mills is also concerned about overuse of the word. She is the executive director of the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Surrey. 

"[Reconciliation in Canada] is more about the acknowledgement that there were wrongs, but there isn't a lot of action attached to it," Mills said.

She said it's difficult to be talking about reconciliation while one party is in power and another is still asking for rights from the former.

"There definitely isn't an equal power distribution. We're not coming to the table as peers, we're still coming to the table as have and have-nots," she added. 

'Learn the truth'

Mills said for meaningful reconciliation with the federal government to take shape, there needs to be an honest attempt to restore to Indigenous people what was taken at the time of colonization. 

Joanne Mills says before reconciliation in Canada can happen, Canadians need to educate themselves and there must be more equality for Indigenous people. (Joanne Mills)

But she says the conversations remain basic.

"I just don't want to talk about the stereotypes anymore. People should go and educate themselves and learn the truth," Mills said.

She said inequality also remains in areas that are provincial responsibilities, such as the high rates of Indigenous kids in foster care in B.C., access to education and overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison.

B.C. has seen changes in elementary and secondary school curriculum to include more education about Indigenous people, but there have been bumps along the way. Some teachers say they are at a loss on how to teach Indigenous content. Others say they lack sufficient resources.

A task force also formed looking at the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison.

Hope for future

Organizations like Reconciliation Canada and UBC's reconciliation course have bolstered more dialogue about Indigenous people historically and today.

 Sandlanee Gid says the hope for her is seeing non-Indigenous people get educated.

When non-Indigenous students learn about the paternalism of past government polices, many reflect hard on their own attitudes.

"They realize they don't want to be called an ally because it's kind of like white Saviour ship and they realize they need to just respect culture and be an advocate when they see injustice," she said.

Shelly Joseph's father Robert Joseph founded the organization Reconciliation Canada. (Angela Sterritt)

For survivors of residential school, the conversations around reconciliation have been paramount to creating needed changes in Canada.

One of the founders of Reconciliation Canada is survivor Robert Joseph. His daughter, Shelly Joseph, now works for the organization.

"My father had a dream many years ago and in it, he saw 5,000 people walking through the streets of Vancouver in the spirit of unity [for reconciliation]," Joseph said.

That dream was realized in 2013 when 70,000 people braved pouring rain for the inaugural Walk for Reconciliation in downtown Vancouver.

Joseph's dad wanted to make sure people knew about the history, and to support survivors, but also make sure everyone had the same treatment.

"What my dad calls a blue-sky visioning — when we are reconciled there won't be anybody suffering here in Canada."



Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.