With the final report published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools (TRC) in 2015, for many in Canada we now live in the supposed reconciliation era. In my home province, a year after Maclean’s magazine declared Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, the newly installed mayor Brian Bowman declared 2016 the “year of reconciliation”. In higher education, reconciliation is the new lingua franca: indigenizing our programs, decolonizing the curriculum, acknowledging the traditional territories, reconciliation education. These things sound good in theory, and indeed are good in practice to an extent. As an Indigenous person, I must admit it sometimes even feels good to talk about reconciliation. It sounds hopeful against the backdrop of a history where resistance against colonial aggression was often discussed as an “Indian problem”. These words do something to structure environments that seem safe and committed to the wellbeing of my people.
But are we actually safer? Are the lives of Indigenous children, youth, and their families, really getting better? Has there been a true shift in public commitments that reflect renewed relationships (structural or systemic justice, honouring treaties, etc.), or are these mere “tropes of reconciliation” reflective of neoliberal political optics? From a critical discursive lens, we must ask do these words pacify something important within activism around issues of justice for Indigenous people? Is the TRC report and the subsequent clamour for reconciliation more than a marker of time from the previous national report documenting the harrowing conditions of life for Indigenous young people?
Before the TRC report, there was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) which made its final report in 1996. With the release of the TRC, just shy of 20 years since the debut of the RCAP, what do Canadians now know of the impact of this first report? In contrast to the 94 calls to action by the TRC, the RCAP included 440 recommendations and a 20-year plan for fundamental changes in the ways Indigenous people and Canadians would negotiate a complex legal, social, and cultural relationship. It also documented the difficulties faced by Indigenous people, especially that of children and youth.
At the time people were energized by the RCAP. But did that energy give rise to justice for Indigenous people? In the 1990s, Canadians started using words like Aboriginal and First Nations. Indigenous traditions and ceremonies began being integrated in cultural events. Native art experienced a sudden popularity. Native studies became a growing field of academic inquiry, in part due to the multiple major land claim cases that emerged across the country. But this era also contained the largest growth of apprehension of indigenous children into child welfare, staggering increases in poverty rates for Indigenous communities, and increased incarceration of Indigenous women.
While the RCAP report gathered dust, vanishing into periphery of many Canadians’ minds, my grandmother and mother’s generation continued the struggle throughout the 1990s that resulted in the formation of TRC. The TRC is not to the credit of successive progressive governments, but it is the product of sustained community activism by many Indigenous people. It is the struggle of indigenous people who with courage dared to begin sharing what had happened in residential schools and in the 1960s scoop, and demanding justice. While rarely recognized for it, Indigenous children, youth, families and our communities have kept the injustices of colonialism at the forefront of political consciousness in Canada through our organizing and activism.
The TRC, like the RCAP before it, has again shed light on the historical and contemporary oppression of Indigenous people, especially that of Indigenous children, youth and their families. The recommendations of the TRC report implicate almost every private and public sector of Canadian society with calls to action for addressing the colonial violence which has touched the lives of Indigenous people. It has given specific calls to action for multiple sectors including education, healthcare, human and social services, religious and cultural organizations, the legal system and the criminal justice system. In particular, higher education has been charged with a number of calls to action which seek to decolonize and indigenize teaching, educational programming and research; as well as bring about a widespread societal shifts in critical awareness and ethical engagement with Indigenous communities. For the moment it seems Canadian society is once again about getting the words right, and while large scale national reports and recommendations have potential to contribute to renewed relationships, Indigenous people have good reason to be cautious of the political optics of the reconciliation era.
In the field of child and youth care we are teaching and investigating what Indigenous people have always known, that within almost every social sphere we choose to acknowledge, we will find that the wellbeing of Indigenous young people is constantly in the cross hairs of colonial powers who are frequently more interested in photo ops than in sustained renewed relationships. For us, reconciliation is not so much the right term for what describes our present reality. We see something different. It is almost 2017 and we still see an underfunding of public programs that support Indigenous children, youth and their families. We see disproportionately high rates of Indigenous children and youth in foster care, at rates that exceed the amount of children impacted by the Indian Residential Schools. We see Indigenous youth are disproportionately victimized by violent crime. We see a revolving door of health and social service providers throughout rural, remote access, and northern indigenous communities. We see Attawapiskat and hundreds of other communities like it, striped of their resources and expected to thrive. We see protests at INAC offices around the country, where the government has again reneged on treaty obligations. We see it in the homelessness of Indigenous LGBT2Q* youth. We see the ever increasing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
In child and youth care, we must see clearly. We cannot not succumb to the subversive colonial amnesia that is at play in tropes of reconciliation. We struggle towards justice in the lives of Indigenous children and youth by challenging the myth that by simply talking about reconciliation, we somehow achieve it.
In the Cree language we have a word, wiisicheyihtamushtamuweu, which means to share someone’s agony or struggles. I believe this is a good ethic for child and youth care in Canada. The optics of reconciliation risk a numbing of our sensitivities, veering towards hollow platitudes. We walk in a good way with Indigenous people by sharing in the agony of resistance, creating illuminating spaces for painful truths to be uttered, dignifying stories of suffering with accountable action, and through the threading of our practice in relationship with Indigenous children, youth, activists, elders, parents, and grandparents, that will carry the struggle far beyond the buzzwords of the day. Critical awareness and the healing of our society is a practice and not a singular epiphany. We must continue to struggle together.
 MacDonald, N. (2015, January 22). Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/welcome-to-winnipeg-where-canadas-racism-problem-is-at-its-worst/  MacDonald, N. (2016, January 27). Winnipeg a leader in fixing Canada’s racism problem. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/winnipeg-shows-us-how-to-fix-canadas-racism-problem/  Henderson, J., & Wakeham, P. (2009). Colonial reckoning, national reconciliation?: Aboriginal peoples and the culture of redress in Canada. English Studies in Canada, 35(1), 1-26. Retrieved from https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/19789/15299
This article was peer-edited by Hans Skott-Myhre
Image taken by Darryl Dyck (January 2013, The Canadian Press)