“We Are All One”: Chief Robert Joseph on Reconciliation in CanadaWritten by Chelby Daigle
Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, official apology, June 11, 2008
This month, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which explored the devastating impact of residential schools on Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities will be closing with a series of events which begin on May 31st with a Walk for Reconciliation in Ottawa.
Muslim Link was invited to interview Chief Robert Joseph, himself a residential school survivor and honorary witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), who is eager to ensure the Muslim communities, along with other members of Canada’s multicultural mosaic, come to a better understanding of the struggles of Aboriginal peoples and participate in the country’s journey of reconciliation. Chief Joseph, the Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and one of the few surviving speakers of the Kwakwaka’wakw language, will be coming from British Columbia to speak at the City of Ottawa during the TRC’s closing event.
As someone who is a survivor of residential schools how do you feel about the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
For me, it is a summation of all of the stories that have been secret for so long, stories that nobody heard, that nobody wanted to talk about, which have been the underlying cause of a lot of grief and harm taking place in the Aboriginal community. Now that there has been a Truth Commission going on for a little over five years, documenting the stories and engaging other Canadians in discussions on these issues, it is a really profound moment in our history to finally shine a light on something that has been profoundly wrong and shouldn’t belong in a country like Canada and now together we are going to own this history and begin to find new ways forward through reconciliation.
So you don’t see the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the end then?
No, it’s the beginning. For far too long many of us survivors in the Aboriginal community have allowed the residential school experience and other colonial experiences to define who we are so now we are here at this moment when we can begin to redefine who we are and with other Canadians redefine this country. We have the potential to impact the entire country. We are so diverse, we are so multilingual and it is important for us to remember that so we can continue to always embrace our differences and celebrate them. I think looking at the residential school experience was simply an important way for us to begin doing that.
The problem we see sometimes with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in other countries is that people want to move to the reconciliation before they get to the truth because facing the truth is so uncomfortable. Do you think that there is still a need to ensure that the Canadian public knows more about the “Truth” side of the Commission?
There has to be a basis for reaching a new understanding and unless you hear the truth beforehand, I don’t see the same value in it. If we are going to move forward together it is because we have told each other our stories and we have begun to have a mutual respect for our experiences and points of view and more importantly how together we define how we move forward in a new way as a collective. We have a motto here which is Namwa-yut in Kwakwaka’wakw which means “We Are All One”. I think this a motto that the world needs to embrace before we blow it all up.
You are involved with an organization based in Vancouver called Reconciliation Canada, what will be the mandate of this organization moving forward?
We are a small, independent, and Aboriginally led organization but our mandate is to encourage and foster reconciliation through dialogue, economic reconciliation, educational outreach, creating partnerships between multiple segments of society so we can have a more inclusive Canada where we can share prosperity and everybody’s in the game.
What does economic reconciliation mean?
There is an island north of Vancouver of about 1,500 people. Half of the Island is Aboriginal and the other half is non-Aboriginal. It is divided right down the centre. They have always worked on their own on each side of the Island on their own economic development and wellbeing. But now there has been a real downturn in the economy and suddenly this community recognizes it now really has to learn and find out how to work together so that they can continue to develop and thrive as a community. So we are bringing in expertise to help them do that and we are asking them to look at development from different perspectives and values and not just about profit. We talk about the values of sustainability and responsibly not just mere profit. So, it is a new way of looking at economic development that also includes how we can protect this divine place.
Why do you think people in Ottawa should consider attending the Walk for Reconciliation on March 31st?
I think that it is really important that people come out and show their support for the idea of reconciliation and support for each other. Much of Canadian society lives in silos, everyone class, race, creed, has sort of its own silo around it. We need to mitigate these, break them down, and really truly embrace the idea that we are all one. Yes we are different and diverse but we are one. It is in finding out and discovering our differences that our diversity will become strong and we will become resilient as a people. Also, I don’t think you can really learn about reconciliation unless you are present at gatherings like some of the Truth and Reconciliation closing events. I think walking together is a good symbol of our desire to move forward as a collective.
People sometimes think they can know about something just by reading about it, but you are saying that with reconciliation you really do need to go out and meet Aboriginal peoples.
Yes, really. Also, we have never been here before. The whole idea of reconciliation in this country seems to be this distant word for people but in ancient societies there were words and processes for reconciling everything and everyone around you. Things like economic development versus taking care of the environment, things like that need to be looked at from the lens of reconciliation so that we make sure we achieve the most balance and harmony possible.
Ottawa itself is considered to be on unceded Algonquin territory, this reality is even attested to on the City of Ottawa’s website. What are your thoughts on communities facing these situations?
Across Canada so many territories are contested accept for where there are official treaties. So we need to reconcile all of that as well. And there are so many other things. During the colonial times, colonizers stamped out our languages, outlawed our spiritual practices. So we need to recognize all of this and begin to find a way to reconcile all of that. This might mean that different faith groups might need to recognize that we Aboriginals have our own spiritual practices today.
There are always new people coming to the country. What is your perspective as a First Nations community member on immigration to Canada?
People are going to be continuing to come here from faraway places-that’s a foregone conclusion. Aboriginal peoples here in British Columbia recognize that. We think that newcomers who come here with their own languages and cultures should be allowed to keep those as well as becoming Canadian-whatever that means. In the same way, we need to allow Aboriginal peoples the freedom to practice whatever we need to practice. We see newcomers coming here with all their diversity as being able to help us as we work to have our diversity as Aboriginal peoples accepted. Also, we shouldn't simply look at newcomers for their productivity; we should look at them for who they are as a whole.
You mean that our immigration policies should not simply focus on immigrants as workers who can do something for the country’s economy?
Yes, we forget to embrace them for who they truly are. We are all born in unique places that have their own relationships with the land, we have unique faiths and spiritual practices. In a place like Canada which boasts about being multicultural we should embrace that.
But newcomers also can and do become part of the systems that marginalize Aboriginal peoples? What are your thoughts on that?
I think the problem with newcomers is that they want to succeed so much in this country that when they come here they just accept the racism and discrimination against Aboriginal peoples and pretty soon they are just as harsh and judgemental of us as the rest of Canadians. That is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their recommendations around how the legacy of residential schools have impacted our education, access to health care, so many things, needs to be taught to everyone. It should be understood that people who have been colonized, who had their lands settled, go through intergenerational trauma for years and years and the impact is still resonating through our families and communities. It is going to take some time to get beyond that, I don’t know how long. We just really want to sense that other Canadians have some respect and understanding of our history and what we need to address in our communities so that Aboriginal peoples too can become a part of Canada.
Ultimately, the success of reconciliation rests on how much we have impacted the general population, how much we have educated them and how much we have shifted their attitudes and perceptions of Aboriginal peoples. Politicians follow the perspectives of the mainstream so if you want to affect politicians, you have to change the minds of the mainstream. So it is important to develop a deep new understanding which will hopefully transform some of the relationships between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians. But I think it is possible in this country, I think we are going to achieve that, whether it is little by little or by leaps and bounds.
There is no doubt that despite how much Aboriginal peoples have suffered you are resilient and have a great deal of wisdom to share. What do you feel other Canadians should learn from Aboriginal peoples?
I think that there are a number of things that Canada and indeed the world are going to learn from Aboriginal peoples. I think this Commission has helped us to formulate some of these important perspectives around values and principles about how we should live out our lives striving for balance and harmony. Like the fact that we need to understand that the environment and we are one, we are not separate from our environment. These are old truths, traditional truths, that haven’t been told for a long time in this country. There is strife all over the globe, there is conflict everywhere so we need to look at processes that help us face our truths and try to work out how we can create a gentler and more compassionate humanity.
What do you suggest people do to learn more about the truths of Aboriginal history and ways they can become involved in reconciliation?
Reconciliation is something that everybody can do. Because you can wake up in the morning as an individual person and ask yourself ‘What can I do to contribute to reconciliation in my life and the life of others this day?’ so we can begin to create a reconciliation lens through which to live out our lives. Within the ancient traditions of my people the Gwawaenuk and other First Nations, there was always that constant reconciliation framework through which to live your life because we realized that if there was disharmony or imbalance or disconnectedness we were not going to be as happy as we could be.
In urban areas, particularly in Eastern Canada, the contributions of Aboriginal peoples often seem erased in our collective memory, and yet even the names of our cities, like Ottawa or Toronto, our provinces, like Ontario, our street names, everything, goes back to First Nations languages, but we often aren’t even taught what the languages are or what the words mean. Do you feel that part of reconciliation is recognizing how much the presence and contributions of Aboriginal peoples to everything around us have been erased from our collective memory and trying to get that knowledge back?
Based on our history together to this point in time, there hasn't been any reason to think beyond colonial language. But we are at this moment in our history as Canadians because of this Truth and Reconciliation Commission where we can re-examine all of our relationships with each other. We need to realize that there were many nations here before the so-called founding nations of Canada. But I think are going to begin to have those really good discussions about all the founding nations of this land and that will include discussions about language like street names, mountains, rivers. Some of that is already going on now but it needs to be broadened. As we move forward we need to know that reconciliation is highly contested in some quarters. Our duty is to create a critical mass of people in Canadian society who consider the idea of reconciliation as noble and something to practice in their daily lives.
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