Education, reconciliation and the nonprofit sector

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Education is the foundation for reconciliation – a message emphasized in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). What education? Why reconciliation? And how do these concepts and practices connect with the world of nonprofits?

From June 2009 to December 2015, the TRC’s mandate provided space across this land for the voices of Indian residential school survivors to tell their truth and for settler society to listen and learn. That truth refers to the European colonization of the First Peoples from first encounter through 150 years of residential school history to the Sixties Scoop (Indigenous children in foster care), a legacy resulting in the political, social and economic discrimination of Indigenous peoples to this day. The recent TRC Final Report and Calls to Action encompass this history in compelling detail.

In the past six years, Canadians have been waking up to the realities of our country’s history. “We never knew” is a familiar refrain. Now we know – we have heard the stories of loss and devastation of the estimated 80,000 remaining survivors, the ability to reclaim language and culture by communities and partners, and we have received the Final Report. But still, too few citizens and newcomers know about this history, and this lack of knowledge is a barrier to reconciliation.

The values of the nonprofit sector are critical to the work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Nonprofit organizations are generally viewed as promoting social justice and equity rights, as well as cultural diversity and sustainable development. These values reflect visions of the public good. Of the three spheres in the lives of nations – public, private and voluntary - the voluntary sector is considered the sphere of social action.

In Canada, civil society is concretized in a nonprofit sector of an astounding size and scope. Given our sector’s strength and capacity, how has it responded to the TRC’s clarion call to education for reconciliation?

Acknowledging past injustice

One part of the sector – churches – historically have walked the longest path of coming to accept responsibility for their role in the legacy of residential schools. The four mainline churches that ran Indian residential schools for 150 years – Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian – were parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement signed on May 23, 2006. This Agreement led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada mandate.

In the 1980s, apologies were issued by the churches and, most often, accepted as an initial basis on which Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples could move forward together. The churches set about educating their members. Through KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, eleven churches and agencies have generated educational resources, events and advocacy initiatives for Indigenous rights for more than 15 years, in partnership with Indigenous peoples. Examples of their groundbreaking work include: Blanket Exercise; Covenant Chain Link; and partnership exchanges with Indigenous partners in Canada and around the world.

Recognizing Canada’s colonial roots

But churches and religious groups aren't the only nonprofit organizations affected by reconciliation. Leaders in other segments of the sector need to take a long, hard look at how their individual organizations may have roots in colonial history and, indeed, may be operating with an outdated and damaging worldview.

Summer camps are a prime example. The historic programming of many summer camps is “…actually the legacy of Ernest Thompson Seton and his Woodcraft Indians movement (1917), which is foundational to many summer camps as we know them," observes Stephen Fine, academic researcher and director of Hollows Camp in Ontario. According to Fine, Seton’s ‘Indian teachings’ were based on a homogeneous concept of Indigenous peoples and did not acknowledge the tenets and teachings of individual nations. This resulted in children and young people being exposed to an imitation of Indigenous culture that fostered damaging stereotypes.

After concluding that “we honoured none of the Indigenous nations, learned nothing of their heritage, and failed to recognize their individual histories and present-day struggles...we decided to retire the program” that was based on Seton’s teaching, notes Fine. Subsequently, camp association leaders have embarked on self-reflection, program re-evaluation, and re-learning under the direction of Indigenous storytellers in Canada and the US. As part of their contribution toward reconciliation, these camp leaders are working to better represent and honour local Indigenous culture at their camps, providing children and youth with an opportunity to engage with Indigenous educators and authentic traditions.

Non-formal education in the nonprofit sector

The nonprofit sector has long provided space for creative, experiential, and shared learning. This has become even more true as the work of reconciliation takes flight and social media makes resources easily available.

KAIROS’s Blanket Exercise is used by youth groups, legal associations, municipal councils, churches, summer camps and others. This dynamic, interactive, and group-based learning activity is conducted with Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. It is continuously being adapted to local Indigenous contexts – in Vancouver, for instance, the KAIROS facilitation team works hard to be rooted in Coast Salish/West Coast traditions and protocols.

Reconciliation Canada, an Indigenous-led organization, models reconciliation by bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together in open and honest conversation to promote mutual understanding. Since 2012, the organization has held about 100 dialogue workshops across Canada with people from every sector. It also provides practical, downloadable toolkits to equip youth and community groups to foster reconciliation.

Service organizations also contribute to experiential learning. For example, Rotary Canada chapters support excursions and exchanges for youth and adults. Their summertime fly-ins to Big Trout Lake in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, northern Ontario are in response to invitations from the community to “come and see.”

Youth are taking responsibility for their own leadership development in reconciliation through innovative programs such as the nonprofit Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE). Since 2012, CRE’s Youth Reconciliation Initiative has engaged Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in communities from Vancouver to Halifax, and in partnership with university and Indigenous partners. Those who complete their training dedicate 10 to 15 hours a month to coordinate reconciliation programs in their communities.

While the aforementioned examples of relationship-building and awareness-raising are inspiring, the journey to reconciliation can be long and hard and require patient commitment. It also requires “skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism” as called for by the TRC 94 Calls to Action.

Vancouver Anglican priest, Laurel Dykstra observes that at the beginning of the reconciliation process, non-Indigenous people are challenged to confront personal and systemic racism. There may be a tendency to “exoticize” Indigenous peoples, or a desire to help, or a reliance on a single Indigenous “go to” person. There is also a fear of doing and saying the wrong thing in Indigenous majority settings, she notes. Further, what reconciliation is and why it matters are not easily gleaned from surface interactions or experiences. To that end, small scale, relational, grassroots, non-programmatic, community-to-community initiatives are the most important, she believes. As the TRC observed, “getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder.”

Educating for reconciliation in schools

Skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism is a consistent Calls to Action directive to leaders in all sectors. This training has a significant place in non-formal and formal education and in the spaces in between. These go hand in hand with detailed prescriptions for Ministries of Education and the teaching profession with respect to curriculum development, training and necessary funding in Calls to Action #62 and 63.

Nonprofit organization, KAIROS, animated its members around the TRC’s Call to Action #62 in a campaign, Winds of Change, to ensure that all children in Canada learn about residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada. Says KAIROS Executive Director, Jennifer Henry: “We have always seen education as the central way to facilitate the transformation that’s required. Until people have new information, their negative stereotypes aren’t challenged and behaviour doesn't change.”

First Nations, Metis and Inuit professional educators, Elders, and traditional knowledge keepers are critical to the development and implementation of new curriculum. Local museums and First Nations cultural sites such as the Woodland Cultural Centre at Six Nations in Ontario, enrich the learning experiences of students of all ages and members of the public.

The Commission notes, “Aboriginal children and youth, searching for their own identities and places of belonging, need to know and take pride in their Indigenous roots...Of equal importance, non-Aboriginal children and youth need to comprehend how their own identities and family histories have been shaped by a version of Canadian history that has marginalized Aboriginal peoples’ history and experience.” A new telling of history and equitable access to education itself by Indigenous children and youth are both named by the TRC as building blocks for reconciliation.

In higher education, Alberta, a province with one of the highest number of residential school survivors, is the site of education for reconciliation in colleges, universities and heritage councils through storytelling and other literary forums, lectures, workshops, water ceremonies, film screenings, round dances, and more.

Many universities participated in the seven TRC National Events held across Canada between 2009 and 2015, and offered formal apologies. Two are establishing new course requirements. Starting this fall, undergraduate students at the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario will be required to take a three-credit course in Indigenous history or culture to graduate. "We have all been affected by the broken relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada," said Kevin Lamoureux, vice-president of Indigenous Affairs at the university in a CBC interview.

Meanwhile, First Nations University in Regina, Saskatchewan pursues reconciliation through research and in partnership with the Canadian/Indigenous Native Studies Association and the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network – infusing education with community-driven research.

What this means for the nonprofit sector

In the public sector, Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to implementing all 94 TRC Calls to Action across government ministries has already provided substantive reasons for discussion and action within the nonprofit sector and between sectors.

Meanwhile, national Indigenous organizations – the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Metis National Council – seek partnerships with the different levels of government and with the nonprofit and private sectors to animate the work of reconciliation and achieve greater self-determination as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

New and promising initiatives are emerging across the nonprofit sector. The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, together with the Inspirit Foundation, organized a gathering of foundations and Indigenous leaders in Toronto to share ideas on effectively supporting the work of reconciliation. Also, the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action is moving toward implementation. This includes strengthening funding, developing an impact and measurement plan, replicating the summit in other provinces, promoting webinars and conferences, and engaging Canada Revenue Agency in facilitating qualified donee status in support of Indigenous organizations.

Individual organizations from all parts of the nonprofit sector are not exempt from the TRC's Calls to Action, and there is much the sector must do to build its own capacity in these areas, and indeed to take a leadership role in contributing to the building of capacity across other sectors. In the end, reconciliation requires fluid and diverse partnerships within, between and among sectors.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Can we imagine a time of renewed storytelling between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this country, a time in which we can collectively articulate new narratives that begin to replace shame with pride, discrimination with equity, and marginalization with identity? Good listening and learning will be essential. The nonprofit sector in Canada has begun the journey of reconciliation. Rich opportunities to learn the truth about our history and to commit to the longer journey beckon.

Henriette Thompson served as 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.

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