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Books Indigenous literature taught Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, to think seven generations out

I’m often asked what reconciliation means to me. I answer: Reconciliation is a journey that must be guided by listening, then acting upon what we learn from those who were harmed.

Canadians really didn’t learn anything about the true history or culture of Indigenous peoples in school. We read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha having no idea that it was inauthentic. It was based on the confused and inaccurate “research” of ethnographer and American Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft. Longfellow had a friendship with an Ojibwe chief, but his desire to romanticize the '"noble savage" is embarrassing and jarring 165 years later. I remember being in pre-med and learning about potlatches in anthropology, but I never learned that they’d been banned. When I was first elected in 1997, I had no idea that the last residential school had closed only a year before, in 1996.

For 22 years as a member of Parliament, I have had the opportunity to learn much more about the true history of our country and the damage that was done by colonizing policies, and the honour of making new friends with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. They have taught me about the importance of thinking seven generations out, that their governments always listened to women and elders and, of course, always determined the impact on children before making decisions. They proudly described Indigenous pedagogy – learning by doing – and the tenets of Indigenous leadership, which include asking, not telling. I am grateful for these lessons, and I know now that I should have learned them in school.

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Some of my most powerful teachers have been the Indigenous writers, poets and playwrights at the forefront of the cultural transformation now enriching Canada. Last summer, I was invited into the kitchen of Métis elder Maria Campbell for tea and homemade pies. Maria spoke plainly. Her observations came from a real place, and they came with practical solutions. I told her that two years earlier, I had paddled down the North Saskatchewan River with some young people from the traumatized Métis community of La Loche. As I was pointing out her house, I explained to my fellow paddlers how when her powerful personal story, Halfbreed, was published in 1973, it had been credited with the rebirth of Indigenous literature.

These young people didn’t know about it. I confessed to them that I hadn’t known about it either, until I became an MP. I said I really wished I’d read it in 1973, when I was a medical student. It would have better prepared me to become a doctor. I don’t think I really understood the consequences of exclusion or feeling ashamed of who you are. Reading Halfbreed opened my eyes to racism as a social determinant of health – the racism we’re still fighting today in all our institutions. It’s this racism that explains missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people and people of colour in our prisons. Maria has helped me see that we all need to be intentional about making new friends who have a different world view. My First Nations, Inuit and Métis friends have changed my understanding of Canada and of what it means to be Canadian.

I often cite the fight for the independence of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto as my inspiration and first real experience in political action. We were mainly privileged white women. We were feminists. We talked a lot about inclusion. But we soon acknowledged that in order to make good policy and achieve best practices in women’s health, we had to include the people most affected by those policies and practices, so we began to include those not only with expertise but also those with different lived experiences.

One of my patients at my practice in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood gave me a copy of Lee Maracle’s I Am Woman. Her words stung. In Chapter 17, “The Women’s Movement,” she asked: “Do we really want to be part of a movement that sees the majority as the periphery and the minority as the centre?” It was an example of the Indigenous world view that I knew nothing about.

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Four years ago, I learned that my late friend Professor Brenda Zimmerman had wanted me to consider a way for all Canadians to join on the journey of reconciliation. Her idea was for book clubs across Canada to choose a book by an Indigenous author for their June reading, to coincide with National Indigenous Peoples’ History Month. In June, 2016, with the help of her former colleague Professor Barbara Henders, we launched Indigenous Book Club Month (#IndigenousReads). Brenda’s idea is working! Canadians are sharing their recommendations on social media. Libraries and bookstores are featuring Indigenous authors. The inspiring residents of the Christie Gardens retirement community in Toronto have gone even further, creating a separate Indigenous Book Club that chooses an Indigenous author every month. The first year, we hosted Tracey Lindberg on Parliament Hill as she read from her beautiful, painful novel Birdie. The truly poetic words seemed to flow directly from the heart of the author onto the page. In Toronto – St. Paul’s, the riding I represent in Parliament, we’ve hosted Indigenous feminist icon Maracle and courageous truth-teller Tanya Talaga. This month, we are hosting the funny and irreverent Drew Hayden Taylor and poet and Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit Stacey Laforme.

I have “prescribed” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be ColdOne Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet for those who don’t seem to understand the reality of the climate emergency we’re facing. I also love Métis poet Marilyn Dumont’s pointed and cheeky A Really Good Brown Girl, especially her Letter to Sir John A. Macdonald: “Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed … after all that shuffling us around to suit the settlers, we’re still here and Métis.” Dumont’s poetry is, ironically, my in-flight reconciliation “grounding” – it’s always available on my iPad at 30,000 feet.

I met Richard Wagamese once in Thunder Bay, at the premiere of Survivors Rowe, Daniel Roher’s powerful documentary about the abuse of more than 500 First Nations children by the Anglican priest Ralph Rowe. My husband, Peter O’Brian, had produced the film and attended the men’s workshop Richard was leading the following day. That afternoon, Peter and I combed the Thunder Bay bookstores and bought a copy of every Wagamese book they had in stock so he could sign them for us. After reading Indian Horse, we wanted to read everything he had ever written. The movie Indian Horse is an inspiration for so many to read his words and better understand the painful legacy of residential schools. His last book, Embers, was so positive that it is difficult to believe he’s gone. I keep the e-book version on my iPad, and it’s always therapeutic.

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I used to think my ideas around inclusion were feminist ideas. I now understand that they are core Indigenous values and practices. Scholarly books such as Joyce Green’s Indivisible and Making Space for Indigenous Feminism are invaluable to better understand that decolonization must be based on the re-empowerment of Indigenous women and the importance of a secure, personal cultural identity as an essential determinant of better health, education and economic outcomes. Mary Eberts’s chapter in Indivisible, “Victoria’s Secret: How to Make a Population of Prey,” was a particularly sobering settler analysis.

We are grateful to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis knowledge-keepers and teachers, and all of the leaders in the private, public and voluntary sectors, who are demonstrating the required listening and learning. They are playing an essential role in the next chapter of Canada. They’re inspiring us to make new friends and to see ourselves in the journey of reconciliation.

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