Jody Wilson-Raybould’s latest book is True Reconciliation: How to Be a Force for Change, from which this essay is adapted.
Over the years, and to this day, there’s a question I keep getting asked: What can I do? The more people ask it – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – the more it becomes clear that there is still a struggle to find answers. In particular, people are struggling to translate their increasing knowledge, awareness, understanding and desire into tangible action.
Times of transition and transformation can be confusing. So I understand why this question is being asked, and why answers are sometimes elusive.
We hear about how bad the Indian Act is. The first Indian Act was passed and imposed on First Nations by the federal government of the new Dominion of Canada in 1876. It divided First Nations into small “bands,” segregated First Nations peoples on “reserves,” imposed a system of government and control by the federal government, restricted basic human rights, and established the residential “school” system. The Indian Act, with its 122 sections, was drafted as a means for the federal government to administer and control the lives of “Indians.” It is a racist, colonial and oppressive law of institutionalized wardship that has done massive harm to generations of First Nations people and continues to do so today. But it still exists, and we hear about how hard it is to get rid of it. And that is confusing.
We continue to hear about Indigenous communities that do not even have access to clean drinking water, despite government guarantees that this will be addressed by fixed dates. Yet the deadlines are never met. And that is confusing.
We complete study after study, report after report, that reveal the depths of the issues and the pathways for change. The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, released in 1996, was a comprehensive study and plan – including 440 recommendations – for what needed to happen in terms of Indigenous rights implementation and relationship-building in Canada. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, provided 94 “calls to action” in response to the history and impacts of the residential “school” system. In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), Reclaiming Power and Place – had 231 “calls for justice,” and laid out how to address disproportionate violence toward Indigenous women and girls. Yet, with all this knowledge and development of solutions, the challenges still feel intractable. And that is confusing.
We hear about court case after court case involving Indigenous rights – literally hundreds of them over decades. The vast majority have upheld the rights of Indigenous peoples. Yet we continue to hear about new court cases all the time, and they seem to go on and on. And that is confusing.
We see blockades and resistance to various natural resource projects by Indigenous peoples and their governments. We also see acceptance, and indeed a full embrace of resource development projects, by other Indigenous peoples and governments. And that is confusing.
We see multiple Indigenous leaders and governments claim to speak for the same people on the same issues, including hereditary and elected leaders. And that is confusing.
We see one Indigenous group claiming the same land as another group. In some cases, they are even from the same tribe; in others, they are not. And that is confusing.
We see new human rights and legal instruments come to the forefront in efforts such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, even though we already have recognized and affirmed the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act (1982). And that is confusing.
We hear about increased commitments to make systemic change in the conditions of Indigenous peoples, yet continue to see more and more protests demanding change, from Idle No More to those about police brutality against Indigenous people, including some instances where Indigenous people have been killed at the hands of police. And that is confusing.
We even find the word reconciliation confusing. It raises basic questions: What exactly does it mean? Whose responsibility is it to reconcile? Does reconciliation have a beginning, middle and end? We hear people say that reconciliation is “dead.” We hear of other terms we should use – such as resurgence or rebuilding. And that is confusing.
Cutting through this confusion is hard for all of us, including for Indigenous peoples. When visiting Indigenous peoples and communities across the country, I have asked individuals whether they would prefer the recognition of their constitutional rights and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or more openings in the fishing season, or hunting opportunities, or other on-the-ground economic opportunities that would support their livelihood. I understand this is a binary choice, and a false dichotomy, really. But I think it says something that people, more often than not, pick the latter. This is a reflection of many things, including the reality of how much Indigenous peoples have had to be concerned about addressing day-to-day realities of poverty and limited opportunities. Because of the immediacy of the challenges many people face to make ends meet, it is hard to focus effort and attention on the vital connection between how rights are upheld and implemented and the on-the-ground conditions of social, cultural and economic well-being; on how both of these outcomes are interrelated, and how one supports the other.
As a First Nations leader, I – like many Indigenous leaders – see it as one of my responsibilities to help develop, share and build answers to the many questions being asked, and to try to sort through the confusion people have. In one form or other, this is a responsibility shared by all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples: finding ways to work together to tackle injustice, systemic racism, and the legacy of colonialism in a way that reflects and advances the vision we have of our society into the future – constructive, resilient, cohesive, just, thriving and peaceful.
So, I decided to write a book to give my answer to the question I am so often asked. To share my learnings about what each of us can do at this critical moment in time, and also to help address some of the confusion that many feel about what is happening, why it is happening and what can be done about it. To be clear, the book is my answer – and my definition of “true reconciliation” – based on what I have been taught and what I have learned.
I believe there are three core practices of true reconciliation: learn, understand and act. These practices are interrelated and interconnected. They build on each other, yet they also should be operable in our lives at the same time; they are not linear. These practices also have specific expressions and meanings. It is not about any learning, any understanding or any action. I mean something very particular about each of these, and how they are practised will be distinct for individuals, communities, organizations and governments.
I admit, these three practices may sound simple and obvious, or too straightforward. But here is one thing I have learned: While effecting real change in our own lives as individuals and in groups is always hard, as human beings there is also often a tendency to believe this is even harder than it is (perhaps even impossible, we tell ourselves). And through that belief, we can make change harder than it already is. Sometimes, those beliefs can even become an excuse to not change. I can tell you that this attitude has plagued our governments in the work of reconciliation. It is too hard. Too complicated. Not possible to know what to do. Or who to do it with. This attitude is also not entirely foreign to Indigenous communities. Change can’t happen. It won’t happen. They will never change.
I reject these attitudes. They are unhelpful, wrong and even harmful. Nothing is ever static in life. We are always moving forward – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – or falling back and being overtaken by struggle. Remember: Doing little or nothing in the face of injustice, harm or wrongs does not mean things stay the same; it means things are getting worse, and your action (inaction) can be or is a part of that worsening.
There is also the reality that because colonialism has wrought tremendous harms, and continues to do so, healing is a vital and necessary part of change; it is intrinsic to true reconciliation. Individuals, through no fault of their own, have experienced much suffering. This suffering has affected their well-being and must be grappled with every day. At the same time, there are intergenerational traumas, as well as systemic inequalities and injustices that have created painful realities for individuals, families and communities. These also must be acknowledged and worked through if change is to move forward.
And I think there is another truth worth considering when exploring how change happens. History – at least the way it is often told – tends to talk of change through big moments and huge events. Or through leaders and the decisions and actions they take. But I do not think this is how change really unfolds. Most of the real change, especially social change, operates like a thief in the night; it does its work quietly, almost imperceptibly, until we realize that something is noticeably different.
The work of effecting change often happens out of sight – unrecognized and unrealized – because it happens through people in their own lives and realities doing things differently, making different choices and often sacrificing in new ways. Real change is not the sole domain of leaders and so-called heroes; rather, change is driven forward by the choices and actions of each and every one of us. The big moments, the ones recorded for all time in the history books, are often moments where we suddenly realize how much has changed (and feel the effects of that change), or they are catalysts that significantly shift the direction or accelerate the work of change to come. But the changes themselves? They are chosen, advanced, acted upon and implemented on the ground, including through what each of us chooses to do in our own lives.