Creating a new legacy: How Canadian nonprofit organizations can support reconciliation

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Reconciliation Canada was launched in 2012 with a mission to engage Canadians in dialogue toward building stronger, resilient relationships between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians. It was inspired by a dream of Chief Dr. Robert Joseph to see tens of thousands of people from all cultures walking together for a better future. That dream was realized in 2013 when 70,000 people braved the pouring rain and came together for Reconciliation Canada’s first major event, the Walk for Reconciliation in downtown Vancouver.

The organization has evolved but its vision remains constant: A vibrant Canada where all peoples achieve their full potential and shared prosperity. “We're trying to unite all peoples in Canada around reconciliation in a way that recognizes our common humanity and our shared history and it allows all individual people to walk down the street and be treated with dignity,” shares CEO and Chief Joseph’s daughter, Karen Joseph.

Let’s be clear: the reconciliation movement is long overdue. But thanks to various initiatives — most particularly the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) — non-Indigenous Canadians are finally acknowledging the painful history of residential schools while Indigenous peoples are “reconciling” their tragic past with a desire and need to move forward with respect, strength and dignity. But what exactly does the process of reconciliation look like? What initiatives are being undertaken and how can our sector best contribute to this significant development?

Creating a new legacy

For Reconciliation Canada, it comes down to creating a new legacy for children of all nations and cultures through an open process of dialogue and truth-telling. Take its two-year initiative Reconciliation in Action: A National Engagement Strategy, a project of Canada 150 that involves events all across the country, including a national gathering of spiritual leaders and youth. Celebrations of Reconciliation will also be held in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, with Walks for Reconciliation organized in each city. “Seeing tens of thousands of people walking together at the walks we’ve hosted in Vancouver and Ottawa has been incredibly moving,” says Joseph. “These walks contributed to a national movement on reconciliation, and sparked many new conversations and new relationships.”

And new conversations are key. Just ask Henriette Thompson who, over the past few years has represented the Anglican Church of Canada – one of four churches involved in running residential schools — in implementing the mandate of TRC. She held a seat at the table of the TRC, along with the Assembly of First Nations, Reconciliation Canada, the Government of Canada and others. She was also responsible for briefing leaders of her church and mobilizing bishops for important reconciliation-focused events.

“The church had an opportunity to offer expressions of reconciliation at each national event; I was working with leaders so that the expressions were meaningful and would be received in a way that honoured Indigenous people,” explains Thompson of her multi-faceted role. The experience has offered new perspective. “What I learned is the need to unlearn what we learned,” Thompson says, explaining she only heard about residential schools much later in life. “I learned so little about [this part of] Canadian history in my education, which taught me that Indigenous history was not important. I had to learn that the encounter between the two was what really shaped our history, more than anything.”

Thompson has also come to acknowledge the deep cumulative effect of residential schools. Think about it: they ran for 150 years – that represents seven generations. “It produced families that knew nothing but residential schools, their culture, language, meaning and belonging stripped from them.” Which, of course, has led to innumerable consequences.

The Declaration of Action

For Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), a network organization, that reality inspires them to build their own cultural competency around reconciliation and help others do the same, says vice president, Sara Lyons. CFC’s biggest contribution so far has been their partnership with the 4Rs Youth Movement, a youth and Indigenous-led reconciliation movement that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people to talk about themselves and their experiences, establishing a point of connection around their differences and commonalities. It’s based on the premise that reconciliation is a journey, says Lyons. “It’s not some law we’re going to pass and all of a sudden we have it.” It’s in the heart of Canadians and young people should be leaders in creating these processes.

Wanting to align their work with objectives of reconciliation, CFC also helped craft the Declaration of Action at the closing of the TRC. Signifying a commitment to continued positive action, the document is of great import to reconciliation efforts. Drafted by a group of five organizations, the initial Declaration signatories numbered around 30, and the current total sits at 72 or so today. The goal is to reach 150 names by Canada’s 150 anniversary, says Wanda Brascoupé Peters, executive director of the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, which was also involved in drafting the Declaration.

The Declaration allows signatories to feel they have a place in the process and allows for the beginning of conversations, she says, adding it inspired others to create internal documents looking at what they did wrong and reporting back on it. “It’s allowing us to be uncomfortable together and co-create from there.”

In the spirit of co-creation, it’s important to understand where one person’s power ends and another’s begins, says Brascoupé Peters. “When we understand our strengths, that’s where change happens, that’s when reconciliation takes place and that’s what the Declaration is hoping to inspire,” she explains. That’s when you’re willing to be uncomfortable and willing to learn.

And new learnings, new understandings are invaluable, according to Bruce Miller, senior development officer for Indspire, who shares his takeaways as community leader. While drafting a national report on philanthropy, Miller came to realize what he calls an exquisite irony.

Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians have common values: sharing, caring, giving and making a difference. Nevertheless, there’s a historic disconnect between the two that defines our history.

The good news is the disconnect offers an unprecedented opportunity to work together, he adds. After all, those shared values can help us build mutually beneficial relationships based on reciprocity – the Indigenous phrase for philanthropy that signifies a relationship of recognition and respect.

Working together for a better future

As for the message he’d like to share with the nonprofit sector: don’t forget that the Indigenous peoples were the original philanthropists in Canada. What’s more, despite the inequities and obvious challenges, Indigenous peoples are actually one of the fastest growing middle classes in Canada. “This is a new donor base,” he says. “So we need to work together.”

Of course, for the nonprofit sector to benefit most from this work, Thompson feels professionals should become familiar with two documents – the UN Declaration of Indigenous People and the TRC’s 94 calls to action. “They offer [organizations] an opportunity to revisit their history and original mission, to learn how their founders engaged with first peoples.” Maybe you’ll find some wonderful stories or maybe you’ll have to confront some difficult truth. Either way, it would be an important exercise. “It gives them opportunities to unlearn some of their history, to do some anti-racism work,” she says.

Organizations in Canada need to undergo some self-reflection, adds Lyons. They need to look at how they may be reinforcing any misperceptions or stereotypes. What’s more, as a sector that has the ear of Canadians and is known to hold a greater level of credibility than government or corporate sectors, nonprofits have a duty to talk about reconciliation. “We have an opportunity and a duty to be talking about residential schools, colonialism, to be telling positive stories about Indigenous innovation and resilience, even if it’s not our core work we have a platform to do so,” she says. There’s also a duty to look at processes like grantmaking to co-create a new, supportive environment working toward positive change.

Moreoever, when it comes to creating a supportive environment for reconciliation, it’s imperative those those in the nonprofit sector make a personal commitment to making reconciliation part of their life, offers Joseph “We see reconciliation as a personal journey that starts internally, which then works through your family, through your workplace, through communities and through society.”

Toward that end, Reconciliation Canada offers a number of opportunities to help nonprofit organizations take action on reconciliation, such as Reconciliation Dialogue Workshops, Lunch and Learn Sessions and Speaking Engagements. “By incorporating reconciliation practices into all aspects of your organization, nonprofits are in a unique position to support and promote reconciliation as a value that must be held by all people in Canada.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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