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'Take down, and start over': Decolonization focus at CBC town hall on reconciliation

Speaking to a packed house at a CBC-hosted town hall in Yellowknife Monday evening, First Nations elders and members of the community repeatedly spoke of the urgency of decolonization on the path toward reconciliation.

Panellists and community members spoke about need to reimagine power structures to achieve reconciliation

Panellist Francois Paulette listens to an audience member during a CBC town hall event in Yellowknife. Paulette stressed the importance of a bilateral relationship between First Nations and government in his remarks. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Speaking to a packed house at a CBC-hosted town hall in Yellowknife Monday evening, First Nations elders and members of the community repeatedly spoke of the urgency of decolonization on the path toward reconciliation.

The event posed the question, "are we doing enough for reconciliation?" and took place at Yellowknife's Northern United Place in front of a crowd of about 150.

Panellists included Marie Wilson, a former commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, residential school survivor and Tsiigehtchic Justice Coordinator Lawrence Norbert, lawyer Caroline Wawzonek, Tlicho artist and musician Casey Koyczan, and Chipewyan and Iroquois elder and residential school survivor Francois Paulette.

The panel included, from left to right: Francois Paulette, Casey Koyczan, Caroline Wawzonek, Lawrence Norbert, and Marie Wilson. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Topics discussed included economic reconciliation, language, and addiction services, but much of the discussion centred around decolonization, and a need to look at entrenched systems of power from the ground up.

Paulette repeatedly pointed out the need for a nation-to-nation relationship as a must for reconciliation, saying that "nothing much has changed" since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action.

"In my language, when people are attempting to make amends, we say... take down, and start over," said Paulette. "If there is reconciliation based on nation to nation, all settlements would be settled. 

"There would be no such thing as consultation, there would be diplomacy. And we are a long way from that."

Wawzonek pointed out numerous hurdles within the legal system, saying that while there are many well-meaning actors "it's a huge gulf to look out over."

"As you deal with the cases, one after another, it's easy to stand on the edge of the cliff and it looks really big, and it looks really deep. And it's really hard to know how you... are going to walk across that," she said, noting that people are often overwhelmed by the issues, leading to a lack of meaningful conversation about institutional change.

'No one wants to give up power'

The discussion then turned to comments from the floor. Long-time Northern resident Lois Little highlighted the difficulties in changing power structures, saying that government structures are resistant to change.

"No one wants to give up power, but we have to change the power dynamics," Little said. "And the only way we can do that is talk to each other, agree to work together, and share power."

That sentiment was amplified in a powerful speech from former Dene National Chief Noeline Villebrun, who noted that modern agreements between First Nations and governments are "ceding and surrendering," pointing out the significance of Canada's official languages of French and English.

Former Dene National Chief Noeline Villebrun gave a powerful speech at the event. 'I don't think society wants to change the rules because right now, we know who has control,' said Villebrun. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

"You don't even recognize our own languages in your corporation," Villebrun said. 

Villebrun spoke about public housing, noting that "we are getting evicted for non-payment of taxes, when the Queen's bargain of 1835 to our people specifically said we are not to pay taxes.

"So why is my family being evicted? That's what I'd like to know," she said. "How do you reconcile that? You can't, unless you change the rules. And I don't think society wants to change the rules because right now, we know who has control."

Paulette closed the event by again stressing the need for a bilateral working relationship between First Nations and government, ending on the example of language legislation.

"If you're going to legislate language, I hope that the money is going to be controlled by the Dene here in the North," Paulette said. "I don't want it to go to the territorial government. Kapeesh?"

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