Canada 150: Truth and reconciliation in the nonprofit sector

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This year, the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation is being celebrated and commemorated all across Canada. For many, 2017 may mark a possible transitional moment in this country between witnessing the truth of our colonial history and moving toward a new vision for Canada through reconciliation. This article will focus on Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on Canada’s 150th and why these sometimes differing perspectives matter to the nonprofit sector.

In June 2015, a scant 18 months prior to the sesquicentennial year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) concluded its six-year mandate with a 400-page summary of its Final Report that includes 94 Calls to Action. TRC lead Commissioner, Justice Murray Sinclair said on June 3: “...we have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing."

Canadians were urged to move from apology to action. Progress on this movement will be monitored, evaluated and reported to Parliament across all levels and sectors of Canadian society – the nonprofit sector, too, will be held accountable for its implementation of the TRC Calls to Action.

In fact, the nonprofit sector may actually be uniquely equipped to assist non-Indigenous Canadians in learning about area treaties, local Indigenous culture, and current issues facing First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. And with Canada’s 150th celebrations already in full swing for 2017, many organizations and leaders are ramping up their own activities to further reconciliation.

Increasing interest in reconciliation

“Young people, students, schools – these are places where the people are leading the leaders in their commitments to reconciliation. We can’t let the Calls to Action go. These Calls to Action are a critically important thread linked to the testimony of survivors of residential schools,” says Jennifer Henry, executive director of KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives which represents ten churches and member agencies.”

During these days of Canada 150, KAIROS is responding to an unprecedented number of requests to conduct its KAIROS Blanket Exercise (KBE), a role-playing, participatory teaching tool that reveals the historic and contemporary relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Between October 2016 and February 28, 2017, more than 75 KBEs were facilitated across Canada with groups ranging in size from 20 to 350, in schools, government departments, churches, regional associations and community groups.

Of the six primary activity areas used by Imagine Canada to describe the nonprofit sector, the one for arts and culture, sports and recreation is perhaps the most visible in its participation in Canada 150. Media coverage in the first two months of 2017 reveals a range of cultural activity planned for the year. Federal funds are set aside in the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Project to “advance a clean growth economy, and/or, (have an) impact on Indigenous communities and peoples.” Many of the anniversary events held across the country will feature Indigenous contributions and include: film festivals; operas; world and North American Indigenous Games in Edmonton and Toronto; theatre, dance, and performance art; art exhibits; new fiction and non-fiction; Canadian magazine public consultations.

In response to TRC Call to Action #83 , the Canada Council for the Arts, a public funding agency, proclaims in its 2016-2021 strategic plan: “...the ascendancy of the artistic expression and cultural self-determination of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people will engender a new relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Canadians will be able to experience the work of First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists as never before.”

An opportunity for education and learning

To bridge the space between cultures, Reconciliation Canada, pursues dialogue and training in schools, workplaces and communities. Founded in 2012 by Karen Joseph and her father, Chief Robert Joseph, a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, Reconciliation Canada is guided by the vision of “Namwayut” – we are all one. “When we first meet, we strip each other of assumptions and provide a safe space for people to get together and determine for themselves how to move forward in reconciliation,” says Chief Joseph.

Reconciliation Canada is well on its way to reaching its target of 100 Reconciliation Dialogue workshops in BC. “This year, we will focus on having dialogue about spirituality, policy options and action plans for moving forward...and big picture initiatives” through these workshops, says Karen Joseph. Reconciliation Canada has a number of national engagement initiatives planned this year, including a Walk for Reconciliation in both Toronto and Vancouver in September.

Another project, this one led by Indspire, an Indigenous-led charitable foundation and a successful recipient of a Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Project grant, will present the Indspire Youth Laureates Cross Canada Tour. These highly-interactive panel forums will be hosted in seven cities and will feature the laureates in discussion with local Indigenous and non-indigenous students, educators, parents and the community about the importance of a solid education.

Canada’s 150th brings mixed feelings

Not everyone is convinced that the more celebratory approaches to marking Canada’s 150th are appropriate. “People need to understand that Indigenous history predates colonization. The last 150 years have represented some of the worst and most traumatic history we have ever experienced. For mainstream Canada, it was the beginning of a Canadian dream but not for Indigenous peoples,” says Metis educator, Lori Campbell. Adds Stephen Kakfwi of Canadians for a New Partnership: “Confederation happened without Indigenous people. We were not at the table when the provinces were at the table. The treaties that were signed were not acknowledged at Confederation.”

The stark legacy of colonization continues to impact Indigenous communities today. Examples include the high number of child and youth suicides in northern communities, the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, the 71 long-term drinking water advisories — in existence for a year or more — in First Nations communities across Canada, as well as systemic and racial discrimination against 163,000 First Nations children as ruled by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in January 2016. The urgent role of the federal government in particular, and also of provincial and territorial governments, is in changing public policies to resolve the bitter fruits of colonization.

Senator Murray Sinclair observes that “Canadians need to be prepared for the fact that while many Indigenous people will be participating, many will also feel antithetical to the celebration. This will be largely due to so much money being spent on this celebration and not provided to Indigenous communities – housing, sanitation, food, employment. They don’t see those things happening.”

Ry Moran is a member of the Metis Nation who, during the six years of the TRC, gathered thousands of statements from residential school survivors and millions of documents for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg. By the end of 2017, he wonders, “how will this celebration of Canada’s history reconcile with the history experienced by Indigenous peoples...? ...Will this be a turning point in our national journey towards reconciliation or will this be a celebration of the status quo?”

Moran calls on Canadians to seek out tears in 2017 – “the kind of tears that show us we are human – that at our core we can be guided by a common sense of humanity.” He wonders if we are capable of waking up “to 150 years of supposed greatness” and of exposing ourselves to the truth of our history. Although such truth-facing contains pain, it also holds the prospects for healing and knowing who we are as a nation. For as Metis educator Lori Campbell advises, we must “acknowledge and learn from the past, understand the role of non-Indigenous people in contributing to colonization, then figure out collectively how to co-exist in an equitable way. After all, neither one of us is leaving.”

Henriette Thompson served as the Anglican Church of Canada liaison to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada from 2009 to 2015. She is a graduate of the McGill-McConnell Master of Management (National Voluntary Sector Leadership) Program. She resides on the traditional lands of the Neutral, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples on the Haldimand Tract (1784)

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