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Review: Arthur Manuel's The Reconciliation Manifesto and Lee Maracle's My Conversations With Canadians

The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy by Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson.

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The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy

By Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson

Lorimer, 312 pages, $22.95

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My Conversations With Canadians

By Lee Maracle

BookThug, 155 pages, $20

Arthur Manuel, Secwepemc Nation from Neskonlith Reserve, died on Jan. 11, 2017, at the age of 66. Manuel was a tireless advocate for Indigenous rights, and has left us one of the most important texts on truth and reconciliation ever written. The Reconciliation Manifesto is a cogent step-by-step look at how Canada's colonial past created our present situation, and provides decolonizing strategies for the future.

There are no shortage of books produced in the past five years that claim to be starting a conversation about truth and reconciliation. However, long before it was a hashtag, people such as Arthur Manuel – and his father, George, before him – fought for Indigenous self-determination, a term largely misunderstood by non-Indigenous Canadians but absolutely vital to the reconciliation process. The difference between The Reconciliation Manifesto – which includes an introduction and afterword by Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson, as well as a preface by Naomi Klein – and many other books on this subject is Manuel's pragmatic and utterly methodical style. The book walks through government legislative practices dating back to Confederation and unpacks how Indigenous peoples have been systematically oppressed for hundreds of years – leading to the position Canada finds itself in today. A situation Manuel identifies as dire: "This massive land dispossession and resultant dependency is not only a humiliation and an instant impoverishment, it has devastated our social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual life. We continue to pay for it everyday in grinding poverty, broken social relations and too often in life-ending despair."

In subsequent chapters, Manuel backs up this statement with plenty of evidence, sharing details of his own battles against the Canadian government. Leaning heavily on UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Manuel then applies a step-by step approach to a plan for decolonization. In Article 3, UNDRIP states: "Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

However, to date, Canada has only agreed to adopt a heavily revised version of UNDRIP. Manuel's plan for pushing this conversation further is pragmatic: "[I]ronically, the surest way to get to this point is to use the almighty balance sheet to force the government to deal with us," he writes. "If we can make the cost of ignoring us higher than it is to deal with us, they will deal. That, finally, is the Canadian way. In a country founded on the balance sheet, the balance sheet is the only force that will lead to fundamental changes."

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Manuel's writing is often very dense, but this is not to say it makes for dry reading – in fact, it's well-seasoned with his sense of humour. He goes so far as to apologize several times for the density of the chapters on Canadian laws, but, as he says, an understanding of how the legal system works is necessary for those who wish to make change. He also takes many, many shots at Justin Trudeau and his "sunny ways" rhetoric, perhaps the most impotent approach to reconciliation to date.

The Reconciliation Manifesto is an extremely valuable resource for those who are fighting for decolonization. For other readers, it may simply serve to dispel myths about Canada's colonial history. Decolonizing is a massive undertaking, and, fortunately, we've got many great Indigenous minds on the job.

Speaking of great minds, Lee Maracle's My Conversations With Canadians may be the perfect book to pair with The Reconciliation Manifesto, as Maracle covers many of the same topics as Manuel but with a significantly different approach. With chapters divided into conversations that range from reactionary politics to (problematic) settler expressions of empathy, she uses an oratory style, gracefully winding around subjects and weaving in a lifetime of lived experience. Whereas Manuel laboriously unpacks colonial history, Maracle leaves some contextualizing up to the reader. In a chapter on how Canadian identity is tied to Indigenous identity, she mentions that many settler women preferred to work with Indigenous midwives over European physicians, because Indigenous peoples had a better understanding of basic hygiene practices. This means that the survival rate for babies delivered by Indigenous women was higher – a no-brainer for expectant mothers. This certainly turns the "filthy savage" narrative of precontact Indigenous peoples on its ear, and may cause a few readers to question their ingrained perceptions of life on Turtle Island before settlers arrived.

Challenging reader perceptions is classic Maracle. As she says: "Canadians don't see us all that well. They have thoughts about us, but they don't look to see if those thoughts ring true." She is also known for snappy retorts to ill-informed questions at her speaking events – sometimes to the chagrin of those in attendance. This book offers an opportunity to peek into the thought process behind Maracle's quips. For instance, in Conversation 13 ("Reconciliation and residential school as an assimilation program"), Maracle tells a story about a question she received after leading a presentation on the missing and murdered girls and women. A man in the audience asked what reconciliation meant to her. First Maracle gives us her inner monologue: "I thought he was being sarcastic or else the question was just asinine. Did he know the meaning of the word reconciliation? I could not believe he had jumped to this conclusion without considering that the killing was not over. Did he think we were friends before those men killed us? Did he think we liked them before they killed us? Did he think I was their friend when they killed those other women?"

And Maracle's verbal response: "Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin … Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination – return our lands, and then we can talk about being friends. I can't believe we are having this conversation after you listened to my presentation about the murder of Indigenous women and children. It is embarrassing – not for me, but for you."

Maracle again asserts her belief that Canadians don't see Indigenous people as people, and wonders if this is the first time the man who asked the question has ever been challenged by an Indigenous woman. She tells us that after answering him, the two just stared at each other for a long time. This must have been pretty awkward, but at the end of the evening, he bought several of her books. So, she concedes, he must have been willing to learn. These are small victories My Conversations With Canadians does not take for granted.

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Both My Conversations With Canadians and The Reconciliation Manifesto offer strength and solidarity to Indigenous readers, and a generous guide to ally-ship for non-Indigenous readers. For the latter, these books will unsettle, but to engage in ally-ship is to commit to being unsettled – all the time.

Carleigh Baker's first book, Bad Endings, won the 2017 City of Vancouver Book Award, and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

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