Reconciliation efforts need more critical thought

Indigenous voices and land restitution are at the heart of, and are yet largely ignored within reconciliation efforts, says religious studies professors.

Tia Lalani - 27 April 2018

By Joseph Wiebe and Pamela Klassen

Canada's Prime Minister addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Ottawa in 2016.

Canadian news is often filled with the latest updates on the quasi-criminal actions and racist and sexist pronouncements of US politicians. Recently, Canadians have had to look their own racism, sexism and criminality straight in the eye.

In 2016, Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old from Red Pheasant First Nation, was brutally shot by Gerald Stanley. On February 9 the jury-from which all potentially Indigenous jurors had been excluded-acquitted Stanley even of the lesser charge of manslaughter. In 2014, Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old from the Sagkeeng First Nation who was supposed to be in the care of provincial child services, was bound in a blanket and thrown into Winnipeg's Red River. On February 22, the man accused of killing her was acquitted by the jury on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

The public mourning and protest that followed these acquittals both galvanized and polarized public debate about ongoing racism and colonialism in Canada. Indigenous writers such as Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt have penned powerful critiques of settler colonialism in newspapers, yet social media has been awash in unabashedly racist comments, including those of an RCMP officer who posted on Facebook that Colten Boushie "got what he deserved." While some proclaim that the verdicts have shattered efforts at "reconciliation," others, including an interdenominational group of bishops, issued statements about the need to "work for reconciliation and peace among all people."

With its history in Christian rituals of absolution, "reconciliation" is a concept that many Canadians find comforting. The term came to greater prominence with the 2015 publication of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Both Christian and non-Christian settlers in Canadian seem to desire reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and yet injustice remains. Why?

In short: land. The TRC report largely skirts concerns about land restitution. Similarly, the bishops' statement ignores the colonialism and dispossession at the heart of issues of injustice and racism in Canada. If settlers want to respect Indigenous self-determination then they have to begin by tackling the question of land.

In this context, it was bewildering to find a personal essay published in the Globe and Mail that celebrated settlers buying Manitoba land without awareness of Indigenous presence. "Buying into my Mennonite roots" was a nostalgic ode to Mennonites' "long history" of buying up land that lies "beyond the fringe of civilization." Celebrating Mennonite men as farmers who transformed the "wilderness," the author Cameron Dueck erased a longer history of Indigenous peoples who still live on the land that he called "swampy," "virgin," and "cheap." In reality, Mennonites settled on the long inhabited territory of Treaty 1 and Treaty 2.

Scholars of the Mennonite experience in Western Canada are hardly surprised by this juxtaposition, in which the ongoing violence of settler colonialism was blithely ignored in the celebration of settler ingenuity. The Mennonites came to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, attracted by government promises of "free land" which they turned into tightly-knit farming communities shaped by commitments to pacifism, adult baptism and family.

Mennonites are indeed people of the land. Mennonite religious identity has found expression through relations to place in villages, farms and gardens. Clearly, Mennonites-or any other group-should not deny this part of their history. But it is the responsibility of all settlers to know the deeper stories of their land.

Being treaty people requires challenging the falsehoods seeded by stories that tell of "civilization" emerging from tamed wilderness; it also requires listening to and reading the words of Indigenous peoples. Reading books like Maria Campbell's Half-Breed, Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster or Harold Johnson's Two Families is one place to start. The voices of Indigenous journalists and writers such as Connie Walker, Angela Sterritt and Alicia Elliott are also rising.

Reconciliation may not be a concept robust enough to bring more just relations among treaty people into being, but it has played an important role in provoking public debate-both productive and malicious-that has brought a greater range of voices into the stories we hear.

Joseph Wiebe, Religious Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column is based on an earlier version written for Religion Dispatches by Joseph Wiebe and Pamela Klassen. It first appeared in the Camrose Booster on April 24, 2018.