The use of police in British Columbia and Ontario to clear illegal blockades, part of a broader dispute over a pipeline that runs through disputed Indigenous territory, has led to an outbreak of people declaring that “reconciliation is dead.”
That’s not surprising. The Trudeau government turned “reconciliation” into a political slogan; it now finds it thrown back in its face anytime it, or anyone else, makes a decision that doesn’t jibe with the expectations of Indigenous leaders – or non-Indigenous activists claiming to act on behalf of Indigenous Canadians.
Live by the ill-defined word, die by the ill-defined word. What does reconciliation look like? How is it measured? How will we know when it has been achieved? The Liberals lifted the word from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but beyond a promise of a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship," they never defined their terms.
As a result, “reconciliation” has become a vessel that holds whatever meaning anyone wants to pour into it.
For some, it appears to mean that when protesters, Indigenous or otherwise, illegally block a railway, their removal by police is always unjustified. For others, reconciliation will have only arrived when all 94 of the calls to action in the TRC’s report are enacted. The Liberals made that a benchmark when, on the day of its release, they pledged to enact every one of the report’s recommendations.
Once in government, the sweeping promise turned out to be rather more complicated and controversial than on first reading, creating difficulties and breeding frustrations. The Liberals had fired before aiming.
But putting all that aside, what is a realistic and responsible meaning for “reconciliation"?
Is it not the role of Ottawa and the provincial and territorial governments to redress past injustices, to improve the lives of a group of Canadians who are disproportionately disadvantaged, to give Indigenous people an equal share in this country’s economic prosperity, to once and for all settle disputes over land and to accomplish all of the above through consultation and negotiation with Indigenous people?
The truth is, much of that is happening, albeit haltingly and incompletely.
Even prior to Ottawa’s apology for the residential school system in 2008 and the rise of the word “reconciliation,” governments were making concrete efforts at redress and repair.
Most recently, the federal government renegotiated the way it provides funding for First Nations and First Nations education, giving many band councils more autonomy.
Just last week, Quebec signed a $4.7-billion agreement with the Cree Nation Government that will protect some Cree lands from development while opening others to resource extraction that will directly benefit the Cree people.
Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands mine in Alberta had unprecedented Indigenous support before the company killed the project this week, with 14 out of 14 affected First Nations and Métis communities backing the project.
Even the Coastal GasLink pipeline at the heart of the current crisis has the support of all 20 elected First Nations band councils along its route. And when the federal government gets the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built, the multibillion-dollar project will be partly, perhaps even largely, Indigenous-owned.
Indigenous people are making it clear that if they are properly consulted, accorded their rights under the law and treated as partners, they want to be equal beneficiaries in the development of Canada’s natural resources.
Isn’t that part of reconciliation?
There is still a lot more to be done, and there remain major issues to be addressed. One is the slow pace of land-claims negotiations. It’s a particularly widespread problem in B.C., and the current crisis is related to the glacial movement on that file. Because the Wet’suwet’en people’s decades-old land claim is still not settled, it’s unclear how much of the claimed land the First Nation has title to, or exactly who speaks for it.
Another troubling issue is the continuing overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons.
But those are faltering steps in a long process, not proof of bad faith. The Liberals’ politicization of the word means that every setback, error and disagreement is going to be heralded as the death knell of reconciliation. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians should look at the bigger picture.