Reconciliation can't happen without reclamation of land, argues Max FineDay

What does reconciliation mean to Max FineDay, a young Indigenous leader? It means freedom, prosperity and giving back land to Indigenous people. It is the way forward for young people to have meaningful and prosperous lives, he says in his Vancouver Island University's Indigenous Speaker Series lecture.

'In our rush to reconciliation, so often we turn away from truth,' says the young Indigenous leader

'There often isn't enough credit given to First Nations about the complexity of our society and what their vision of the future was,' says Max FineDay, a young Indigenous leader working with youth to help shape reconciliation in Canada. (Vancouver Island University)
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Max FineDay is not yet 30 years old, but he's making his mark as he travels across the country talking about reconciliation to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

He's a nêhiyaw napew from the Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory and the executive director of Canada Roots Exchange — a national Indigenous youth-led charity empowering youth to shape the future of truth and reconciliation in this country. His goal is to clear a path for Indigenous youth to set their sights high and to achieve economic and personal success.

"I tell stories to people who haven't seen what I've seen so that they can be called to do something, called to learn, called to change their behaviour," he said in a lecture at Vancouver Island University, as part of the fifth annual Indigenous Speaker Series in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

His lecture was a witty and powerful reminder of the urgency when it comes to issues of Indigenous justice.

So rare is it a moment in our lives that we know we're in the middle of what we know to be an incredible story.- Max FineDay

Although FineDay believes that there is potential for change, he emphasized that this is an issue that continues to linger between generations — a narrative of trauma without a full stop, but one that can be reconciled with collective action. 

"It's a story yet without an ending," FineDay said. 

"It's a story so far about tragedy, with moments of triumph. So rare is it a moment in our lives that we know we're in the middle of what we know to be an incredible story ... We have the opportunity to direct its conclusion, to play a part in finding its ending."

'The Promised Land, as this lecture is titled, is an homage to the question that we have yet to answer. It's a reminder of what my ancestors and yours agreed to. It's the ending of the story that we're writing right now,' Max FineDay says in his lecture. (Vancouver Island University)

FineDay carries the pain of his generation — the trauma of children born into dire circumstances out of their control. 

In his talk, he highlighted how the intergenerational pain among Indigenous youth has led to young children taking their own lives. He referred to an incident in northwestern Saskatchewan in which a 10-year-old committed suicide and a state of emergency was declared following multiple incidents. 

"Youth from the community sent a letter to their chief and counsel, but I think it's a letter for all of us," FineDay said.

"Enclosed in it are the hopes and the heartaches of a generation. The aspirations and actions they so desperately want. Please help us understand who we are as a people."

The powerful lecture was accompanied with a question and answer session. 

Here is part of that discussion. 

Audience member: I'm deeply disturbed that young people internalize [their frustrations] and then commit suicide. As a grandfather and parent, just as a person and as an Indigenous person, I struggle with the idea that a 10-year-old would would be in such a deep dark place across this country ... that they would feel they need to take their own lives. What is it that you think we should be doing now?

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, that it doesn't happen too often and it's rare but that would be a lie. It was just a few months earlier that another 10-year-old chose the same route in southern Saskatchewan. How do we call ourselves the 'just country?'

I'm not one for eliciting societal change through guilt. That's not the path of change or progress that I usually seek.

But, you know, my blood boils every time I hear of another young person who has decided that there is absolutely no other way to live in one of the top five best countries in the world as rated by the United Nations Human Development Index.

I think that one of the things we need before we get to reconciliation is storytelling. We need truth-telling and we need to talk about that colonization that hasn't left our communities and our people. In my community we're dealing with a father who stabbed his son and I think that for us, it is life and death.

I'm losing patience and I worry about my kids. I want to run away from my people. But I do think that what we go through in community isn't shared — there's a secrecy. I wonder how we share this without people shutting down?

As you know in our rush to reconciliation so often we turn away from truth. We know that truth as we have been taught is the sibling of reconciliation. We know that they come together, they come as a pair.

Do you hear what this this woman said to you? This place has some difficulty of its own. Do you hear what this woman said to you? That there is so much truth left unspoken. Do you hear what this woman said to you? She worries for her children. 

This isn't far away. This isn't some skeleton in some basement of our history.

Sen. Murray Sinclair spent six years hearing stories of the effects of Canada's residential school system for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He agrees that communities should be able to take control of the healing process with the experience of elders and Aboriginal traditions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Now I wish I had an answer for you. The truth is hard to tell. I get berated by some of our people for being too gentle with Canadians. If I'm honest, I'm not sure that we are ready as a country to tell the full truth. I know that the Indigenous people in this room could tell some stories that would be hard to listen to, if not impossible.

You feel that pit in your stomach that uncomfortableness that makes you shift in your seats. We are Canadians. We're supposed to be this great defender of human rights, the good guy on the international stage. 

These are the things that we're proud of. How far we have yet to go. The most frustrating part, and I feel that, too — that frustration, is that it's not up to you and me how fast this gets to happen. It's up to Canadians how far they're willing to go for us, how quickly they will seek to to find peace, prosperity and mutual benefit among us.

For new immigrants, many people coming from a different country, they don't know about Indigenous issues. It took me a decade just to find out what everything meant ... Do you think something is being done on those lines?

Max FineDay answers questions from the audience with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. (Vancouver Island University)

It's so crucial and I think we've done a really bad job as a country including new Canadians and including people of colour in this reconciliation. Even our own leadership will often dilute it too.

You know, we were talking at lunch about how in Toronto you can hear five languages on any given block. Once you've arrived on these lands, you are a party to the agreements, to the treaties, to the history of this country. We've been doing a lot of work at Canadian Roots Exchange to engage with new Canadian communities and communities of colour to make sure that they see themselves reflected.

We know that new Canadians, and first generation Canadians, are going to be a huge part of the workforce, of the economy. They are going to be employers, people of prominence and influence.

If we don't educate them on this beautiful history of Indigenous people, on the challenging realities that we face today, we're missing a crucial constituency ... We need to normalize conversations with new Canadians as part of reconciliation.

Max FineDay and the contributors' comments have been edited for clarity and length. 

** This episode was produced by Anne Penman.