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Opinion For true reconciliation, all Canadians must join the conversation

Joanna R. Quinn is director of the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction at Western University.

It is easy for most Canadians to think of colonialism as long ago and far away. Indigenous Canadians, though, face the realities of colonialism every day. Now 140 years old, The Indian Act still controls almost every facet of life for indigenous Canadians, effectively making them wards of the government.

Promising to do better, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently stood in the legislature to apologize for the Ontario government's role in the Indian Residential Schools. In doing so, she echoed Stephen Harper's 2008 apology. Another part of that effort to "do better" on the residential schools question was a fact-finding body called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created in 2008 to uncover what happened in those schools, which released its final report last December.

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One can imagine that many Canadians sighed with relief, thinking this might finally be "reconciliation" with indigenous Canadians. When a report was released at the same time that detailed dangerously high levels of mercury in the Wabigoon River on the Grassy Narrows First Nation, few took much notice, and even fewer considered the connection between the two events.

I have spent much of the past 20 years working on rebuilding communities after conflict and human rights abuses in "foreign" places such as Uganda, Haiti, and the Solomon Islands. Yet it took a long time for me to realize indigenous Canadians have experienced the same abuses I've seen elsewhere. I don't think many Canadians recognize this either.

Canada is just one of a long list of countries struggling to come to grips with the legacy of colonialism, and has a lot in common with the kinds of places I study. Our closest comparator is Australia, although there are remarkable similarities with South Africa and Northern Ireland.

Indigenous Canadians continue to be treated badly by the Canadian government. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked at is only a small part of a complex picture. The mercury poisoning in the Wabigoon River, the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women across the country, water crises on reserves, sky-high suicide rates among indigenous Canadians, and protest movements such as Idle No More all point to a larger issue that remains unaddressed: these things are connected.

As the TRC report recognized, "The beliefs and attitudes that were used to justify the establishment of residential schools are not things of the past: they continue to animate much of what passes for Aboriginal policy today."

When treaties were signed between the First Nations and representatives of the Crown, indigenous communities had every reason to expect those agreements would be honoured. In a seminal peace treaty signed in 1613, for example, the basis for many future treaties, Iroquois nations agreed to equality with the Crown – as commemorated in a Two Row Wampum, a belt made of two perpendicular rows of purple beads that signify the two nations travelling parallel to each other, separate but equal. But Canadians have failed to honour our "parallel" commitment. We are all, effectively, party to those treaties. Only some of us have fared far better than others. That needs to be fixed.

This is not an intractable problem. My own research, for example, has shown that for people like me – a Canadian who has benefited mightily from that inequality – all that is needed to begin the resolution process is to take the time to understand what has been done to indigenous Canadians, and to increase awareness that a great number of indigenous Canadians now face a set of circumstances that are not of their own choosing. We need to acknowledge there is a problem because unless we do, we perpetuate the inequality that divides us as Canadians, and foreclose any prospect of reconciliation.

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No solution will ever be perfect, and the experience of other countries has shown that success is relative. Coming to terms with our collective past means showing up, being part of the conversation, and being honest about what has taken place, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. We should be discomfited by the process; if we are not, we're not doing it right. Experience elsewhere has shown that non-indigenous Canada needs to begin a frank conversation with our indigenous partners about how to get from the status quo to an imagined new beginning.

The TRC was one step in a process that has only just begun. What is needed now is for non-indigenous Canadians to acknowledge both what has happened, and what continues to happen across Canada. And then we need to bring that acknowledgment to life, fulfilling the promises that have been made. That will be the beginning of reconciliation.

Joanna Quinn is one of the organizers of "Pathways to Reconciliation," to be held at the University of Winnipeg from June 15-18.

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