A podcast will also be available soon on the site of the Carleton Centre for Public History.
Thank you, Isabel for that introduction, and thank you to the Ottawa Historical Association for the opportunity to speak with you this evening, as well as the Carleton Centre for Public History for hosting a podcast of this talk on their website.
Before I begin, I would like to take this opportunity to recognise and thank the Anishinabeg in whose traditional and unceded territory we are gathered here this evening.
In December 2000, as a very wet-behind the ears public servant, I was sent to a meeting with the Chiefs and councils of the Ermineskin and Louis Bull First Nations in the Maskwahcis region of Alberta. I was to be part of the representatives of the now defunct Treaty Policy Directorate of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, now known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. This was my first “government business” trip and we were off to discuss Treaty 6, and the historic relationship between Treaty 6 First Nations and Canada.
As the only historian, as well as the only non-Indigenous person in the INAC group, I wanted to be well prepared. Also, as a relatively new public servant, I want to prove to my colleagues that I was up to the task of preparing “Canada” for any historical issues that may arise during our two days of discussions. For the weeks leading up to the meetings, I crammed like a undergraduate student getting ready for finals, reviewing archival materials about the signing of the treaty, the history of the communities and the actions of government after the treaty was signed. I was determined to show that my university training in History could be a valuable asset to my directorate. I was sure that I knew everything that was relevant and was ready to argue my [quote] well researched facts [end quote].
After driving from Edmonton to Louis Bull First Nation on a bitterly cold morning, we all filed into the band council office. My departmental colleagues were all greeted as old friends, as they had been on the file for years. When I walked through the door, one of our hosts called out: “Hey, look! The Indian agent has arrived!” to a general round of chuckles. To say that I was shocked at such a comment would be a bit of an understatement. Immediately, my back was up as I resented being saddled with such as pejorative label. I wasn’t an “Indian Agent” - I knew that this position had been abolished even before I was born and I definitely wasn’t a representative of the old paternalistic department!
From where I stood, that was the high point of the meeting and the rest of it was downhill from there. Any comment I made about the history of the treaty by referring to historical research, archival records or the reports of the treaty commissioners was mocked with the words: “I guess the Indian agent knows us better than we do…” Finally, one of my colleagues took pity on me recommending that I simply stay quiet and that I skip the next day’s meeting. Humiliated and pouting like a child, I spent the next day at the provincial archives trying to prove all the things I’d said the previous day.
You may be sitting there thinking to yourselves that I’m about to tell you that this was my “Ah-ha!” moment and that I came away from this encounter questioning my beliefs and beginning to re-evaluate my approach and my understandings of Indigenous-Crown relationships. Unfortunately, I am not that smart - in fact, for the next few years, I continued to be an ignorant moron who placed all confidence in my university education and my Western liberal views of progress. It would take several more encounters with other historians, such as Jim Miller at the University of Saskatchewan, colleagues in the Department - some of whom are in the room with us this evening - researchers working on various claims and litigation, average Canadians, and especially treaty elders, for me to come to realise that, despite my belief that I was open to new perspectives, in reality I was completely limited by my own biases - biases that were constructed by my education, my upbringing in Ontario and my status as a white bilingual middle-class Canadian.
The reason for this little story is quite simple: I am an average Canadian. Like nearly all other Canadians, I was raised and educated to believe in the value of Western progress, that Canada was built on strong moral grounds and that Canadian society has aimed to help those who are disadvantaged. Also like most Canadians, and until I started working at INAC, I’d had very limited contact with the realities of Indigenous life, culture or perspectives - despite growing up in close proximity to Akwesasne, one of the most vibrant Indigenous communities in Canada. As is the case for most Canadians, there was virtually no discussions of Indigenous peoples at any level of my education and I had but a vague understandings of the conditions on reserves and other Indigenous communities. In other words, I, like most Canadians, was largely ignorant of the historic relationships that had evolved between Indigenous peoples and Canada, and how that history impacts the current realities of Indigenous communities. This lack of awareness is, in my opinion, widespread throughout all levels of Canadian society, despite a genuine interest on the part of many Canadians towards Indigenous issues. People don’t know why reserves exist, why Indigenous peoples fight for their rights before the courts, or why they argue that Canada’s institutions still discriminate against them. I would argue that as a general rule, Canadians of all walks of life, and I would include my colleagues in the Public Service, do not have an understanding of the sources of these issues.
Furthermore, despite a real interest in the plight of Indigenous peoples in this country and the growing inclusion of Indigenous content in school curricula, the vast majority of Canadians are not yet ready to accept that their own perspectives are limiting their engagement on Indigenous issues. The reason is simple: just like for me, it will take more than one report, one class, one newspaper article or one meeting with an elder to transform their perspectives and biases towards Indigenous peoples. It will take time and effort to get average Canadians to come to think of these issues differently.
A recent experience drove this point home for me again just this past weekend. With family in town, we all went to Parliament Hill for a tour of Centre Block. As we stood in the foyer of the House of Commons, the tour guide drew our attention to the History of Canada frieze where she first pointed out the man teaching his son how to hunt polar bear, never mentioning the fact that they were Inuit, then mentioned the panel about the arrival of the norse and jumped to the Education panel that showed [quote] a woman teaching First Nation children [end quote]. After a word or two more about the Acadian deportation, she then promptly ushered the group into the next room. When I heard her words, I was stunned. There we stood in front of the stain glassed window commemorating the experiences of residential schools in Canada and our guide had made only one direct comment about Indigenous peoples as part of the History of Canada and then reduced it to a comment about benevolence of Europeans imparting their knowledge on First Nations. To my ears, her words reinforced the Western concepts of civilization and progress while reducing Indigenous peoples to a group without knowledge. To top it off, her comments about the panel were factually incorrect as, according to the notes of Eleanor Milnes, the Dominion sculptress who designed and carved the frieze, it actually titled “Women teaches a group of children” [as a matter of full disclosure, I am a former parliamentary tour guide who, back in the day, worked on the guides’ training manuals …].
From my admittedly limited perspective and experience, I have come to believe that if we are to find a way to address outstanding Indigenous issues in our country, we must recognise how our perspectives of these relationships influence our policies, our decisions and our future. In other words, we must engage with Indigenous peoples so as to reconcile our different perspectives of the relationships and move forward together.
My goal this evening is not to admonish Canadians for not knowing Indigenous history, but rather to discuss the place of these historical relationships within the process of Reconciliation, especially within the context of government policy and decision making. I firmly believe that most public servants are just like me: they want to help improve the lives of Indigenous peoples but they are unaware that they are hampered by their own biases. An important lever in changing these biases is rooted in our history - the history of Canada, the history of Indigenous peoples, the history of policies and programs. If public servants, let alone average Canadians, do not have a proper understand of how a particular issue has come into being, how can they expect to work with Indigenous partners and develop responsive programs? If policy and program officers don’t know and accept the history of government action or the impact of paternalistic policies on Indigenous communities, how can we know if we’re working towards Reconciliation?
Before we continue, I believe it is important for us to look at what is meant by Reconciliation. The term, and more importantly the concept it represents, isn’t a new one and has been used several different ways in Canada . Unfortunately, as Ravi de Costa and Tom Clark noted in their contribution to “Speaking My Truth”, Reconciliation is somewhat poorly understood, and often seen more as [quote] an optimistic but vague aspiration, one that most broadly connotes improved relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people [end quote]. Part of the ambiguity of the term stems from the fact that its use has been evolving over time.
For example, one of the earliest uses of the concept of improved relations for Reconciliation dates back to the mid-1970s when Métis scholar Emma Laroque, in her work “Defeathering the Indian”, examined how to best use education in bringing about cultural understanding with the goal of developing mutually respectful relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. For Laroque, Canadian society is [quote] culturally myopic [end quote] in regards to its own history and is hampered by a biased understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples. She sought to reconcile this bias by bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous learning together so as to break down stereotypes and forge new perspectives - this continues to be a central tenet of Reconciliation efforts.
Our understanding and awareness of the need for reconciliation became increasingly apparent in mid 1990s through the efforts of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. As part of its wide-ranging commentary on the state of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society, the Commission’s multi-layered recommendations for addressing the disparities within Indigenous communities sought to establish a renewed relationship between them, the Crown and the rest of Canadian society. While the primary focus of its recommendations was the creation of a new relationship built on the recognition and exercise of Indigenous governmental autonomy through new political and fiscal arrangements, the Commission's report stressed the need to reconcile the differing understandings of past events, specifically, [quote] that the history of hurt has to be reckoned with in creating a new relationship [end quote] between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada. The Commissioners argued that [quote] the profoundly harmful elements of the past must be acknowledged...as a means of reconciliation [end quote] and allow Canada to [quote] place its relationship with Aboriginal peoples on a proper footing, and it could express the hope that an honest acknowledgement of past wrongs will break the cycle of guilt and blame and free both sides to embrace a shared future with trust in each other [end quote]. RCAP’s words focused attention on the difficulties of reconciling the relationship especially in light of unresolved issues, most notably Residential Schools.
In 1998, as part of Canada's response to the RCAP report, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jane Stewart, issued a “Statement of Reconciliation” reprising many of the concepts presented by the Royal Commission. In the statement, which was prefaced by a declaration that the [quote] federal government must acknowledge its role in the past relationship [end quote], Minister Stewart described reconciliation as a “process of renewal” that would address the legacies of the past. Specifically, the purpose of reconciliation was [quote] not to rewrite history but, rather to learn from our past and to find ways to deal with the negative impacts that certain historical decisions continue to have in our society [end quote]. Unfortunately, the statement of reconciliation became somewhat lost in the shuffle of the federal government's post-RCAP approach, known as Gathering Strength, that focused largely on self-government and relationship building with limited mention of reconciliation itself.
The Supreme Court, for its part, has brought a legal dimension to the term “reconciliation”. In its 1990 Sparrow Decision, the High Court made its first reference stating : [quote] federal power must be reconciled with federal duty and the best way to achieve that reconciliation is to demand the justification of any government regulation that infringes upon or denies Aboriginal rights [end quote]. Former Chief Justice Lamar further qualified the legal concepts around reconciliation in the subsequent Van der Peet decision of 1996. Here, Justice Lamar brought forward the concept that the constitutional protection of Aboriginal and Treaty rights under section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act not only created a framework for the recognition of those rights, but also for the reconciliation of Indigenous interest with the sovereignty of the Crown. In a 2013 address, current Chief Justice McLachlin summarized this evolving usage of the term by the Supreme Court noting that the concept of [quote] reconciliation between Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and the Crown’s sovereignty [end quote] has been further refined and has moved beyond this strict legal context. In her opinion, [quote] Reconciliation reflects the shared history of the people of this country [and] that we have no choice but to live together and reconcile our differences [end quote].
Most recently, these ideas and concepts have been reshaped and clarified by the ongoing process to address the historic wrongs of Residential Schools. In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said that Reconciliation is an ongoing process [quote] about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this Country [end quote]. The commissioners went on to say that to establish such a relationship, there must be a [quote] awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour [end quote]. In other words, reconciliation is about changing how we view how we've gotten here and how we move forward together in the future with that knowledge.
The current realities, difficulties and challenges of Indigenous peoples in Canada are not in a vacuum, although you could think so if your only source of information was the media. The news seems to be full of stories like the housing crisis at Attiwapiskat, the staggeringly high rates of suicide amongst Inuit, or the contaminate water in Grassy Narrows. News articles are short, direct and largely focusing negative stories, often ignoring the growing improvements and successes within Indigenous communities elsewhere. Unfortunately, minus a scant sentence or two, there is little said as to the longstanding causes behind the story. And we in Government are often questioned about what we’re doing about these “problems”: Why haven’t “we” been able to “fix” them? Why are interactions between Indigenous organisations and government so complicated? Why don’t they trust us? These aren't easy questions to answer, and such questions are deeply rooted in a long and complex history.
Unfortunately, we have not taken enough time to properly understand these causes or to place them within the broader evolution of the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This belies two shortcomings in the way we address these issues. First off, the primary concern with any new issue is, and rightly so, the current well-being of those affected. If people are in distress, we need to address their needs. This often results in quick fix solutions that address the current problem but rarely the broader systemic issues that created the crisis. Once that's done, it's time to move on to the next issue, and there’s often little time to fully examine the source of the issue. This feeds the second shortcoming as the day to day management of these issues tends to limit our perspective and therefore to prevent us from understanding how this current “crisis”, to use that term, fits into the broader relationships impacting a specific community.
If we were to look at the 2011 housing crisis at Attiwapiskat as an example, an examination of the history of housing on that community could have helped us understand the difficulties of shipping building materials to a remote northern community, or to see how the tangle of bureaucratic regulations hampered the community’s ability to respond. Placing this incident within the broader context of Attiwapiskat’s relationship with the Crown, we could see that the tension between the community and the Crown surround the differing interpretations of Treaty 9 has also lead to misinformation and distrust of government action. If we stop to look at this historical context, we see that there isn’t one issue, a housing crisis, but rather a web of interlinked concerns that are rooted in a long standing relationship between this specific community and the Canadian state.
This example raises, in my mind, many important questions, such as how can we achieve “reconciliation” with Indigenous partners if we do not understand the source of their concerns and complaints? How do we go from a “crisis management” approach in dealing with Indigenous issues to a holistic one that sees specific issues as part of a broader relationship.
As our discussion of the concept has shown, a great deal of importance is placed on awareness and acceptance of the past as a vital part of the Reconciliation process. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which stressed the need to recognise Indigenous historical contributions, stated: [quote] History plays an important role in reconciliation; to build for the future, Canadians must look to and learn from, the past [end quote]. But while the Commission is correct in its assessment that many Canadians do not know the history of Indigenous contributions to Canada, I would argue that our ignorance of the historical relationships between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada is also hampering our efforts towards reconciliation. As I’ve learnt through my experiences with Treaties, the history behind Indigenous issues, if I may use that term, is entirely grounded in the history of the relationships that have developed between individuals, communities and governments. And so long as we dismiss this history, we will have great difficulty in finding viable solutions.
Fundamentally, there isn’t one historic relationship but many. All of these different relationships have their own particular context and are influenced by their unique and interrelated histories. Unfortunately, often we speak of “the” relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. Such language lumps all Indigenous peoples into one single category, and often heavily influenced by First Nation experiences. This tendency masks the differences between peoples, let alone their individual histories. This, of course, isn’t surprising. As Thomas King points out in “The Inconvenient Indian”, the policies of government encouraged thinking of Indigenous peoples as a single unitary group: Indians. This is especially problematic as it creates the impression that the historical experiences of First Nations, Métis and Inuit are all the same. Each one of these groups has had different and unique evolving relationships with the Crown, and their experiences cannot be fully acknowledged and understood unless they are first separated one from the other. While there are historical elements that cut across them, we need to recognise how the relationships with Métis and Inuit differ from those with First Nations, therefore helping us understand the current realities of all Indigenous communities and find reconciliation with them.
If we are to understand the current relationships that exist between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, by which I mean the Canadian state, the provinces, as well as their institutions and employees, let alone the rest of Canadian society, we must understand how these relationships have changed and evolved over time. Consequently, we must acknowledge that these relationships are complex and nuanced, vary from region to region, era to era, group to group, and each have their own specific history.
For example, we often speak of “the” treaty relationship - a single relationship between the Crown and all First Nations signatories to treaties, but this subsumes the differences between the treaties or the individuals who concluded them. There are, in fact, a multitude of different treaty relationships as the differences between treaties create different realities. Take the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty. Concluded after a two year struggle by the Mi’kmaq against an aggressive British military campaign to break the long-standing Mi’kmaq-French alliance, the agreement’s purpose was to rebuild a relationship of peace and mutually beneficial exchange between the British of Nova Scotia and the Mi’kmaq. But continued colonial conflicts, the generalised language of the terms of the agreement and an overall disregard for Indigenous affairs in the Maritimes led to a long period of dismissal of this and other treaties concluded with the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy peoples. The fact that this and other treaties were only recognised as a result of hard fought legal battles, has impacted and altered the current relationship from its original intent. Today, as governments and Indigenous communities work towards new agreements, this neglected treaty relationship looms over the negotiations.
The circumstances of this treaty relationship are different from those of other treaties, such as Treaty 6 of 1876 concluded between the First Nations of the central prairies and the Dominion of Canada. Instead of re-establishing a relationship after war, Treaty 6 was part of a suit of treaties in the first years after Confederation that aimed to prevent open conflict during a period Canadian territorial expansion and social transformation of the way of life of the Prairies’ Indigenous peoples. From the get go, the Crown’s reliance on the limited nature of the treaty text and its push to [quote] civilise Indians [end quote] in Western Canada fundamentally shaped its relationship with Treaty 6 First Nations who, for their part, based their understanding on oral traditions that the treaty was an agreement to share and benefit the land with newcomers. To this day, these opposing interpretations of the treaty create a tense and occasionally confrontational relationship in the day to day affairs of government.
Nearly everything about these two treaties is different: the eras, the parties, the terms and the implementation. They both create different and unique relationships that have profound impacts on all levels of interaction. For those of us who work on treaty related issues, we need to recognise these differences in the relationships if we are to interact with our treaty partners and to develop responsive approaches that meet their needs.
Another example would be the relationships created by specific actions of government, such as the relationships created by the Indian Act and other pieces of legislation. The relationship created by the Indian Act is a particular case. Where treaties are widely seen as creating relationships between partners, the Indian Act is not generally seen as being a creator of relationships, but rather as a tool for paternalism, or for the setting of government’s role and responsibilities towards Registered Indians. In reality, the 1876 act and its subsequent amendments, entrench what we could call a “dominance-dependence” relationship, or even a legislated unequal relationship. Legislation such as this one has shaped the relationships between Crown and Indigenous peoples by defining who was and who wasn’t a government responsibility which ultimately resulted in the recognition of status Indians, and the exclusion of Métis and non-status First Nations. Or by creating a network of agent and officials who would be interacting with Indigenous peoples and by framing policies and programs designed to change how one segment of the Canadian population was to behave, live and think, such as through residential schools.
These are but a few simple examples of the different relationships that directly impact the current interactions between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. There are many more, such as fiscal relationships, fiduciary relationships, and constitutional relationships, none of which have been placed within their historical context.
All too often, those of us who represent the Crown forget that these relationships taint how Indigenous people see us. Such was the case during my visit to Alberta in 2000. I have come to realise and accept that many Indigenous people see the entire legacy of paternalism and assimilation of my department whenever I am seated across from them. If we, as public servants, are to be more responsive to the needs of Indigenous peoples, we need to understand our place in the historical evolution of these relationships. I am not suggesting that we be driven into action by guilt for the decisions of former public servants, but rather that we must accept and understand that this is part of our heritage and that it does influence our decision making.
During a conference in Thunder Bay in 2011, I participated on a panel with Indigenous historians and we argued about who had the [quote] right history [end quote]. An Nishnawbe elder in the room had quite enough of our bickering and strode up onto the stage to quiet us. He told us that we both had the “right” history but that until we put them together, we would never have the complete history. That, in my mind, is Reconciliation - creating a complete understanding of the relationships that exist between us so that we can move forward together. And this is our challenge because Reconciliation in Canada cannot occur without an awareness and acceptance of our shared history. This is our history, the history of all those who live in Canada. By creating this shared narrative, we will have more of the tools required to build stronger and more respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
Having new respectful relationships grounded in our shared experiences is our goal and it lies ahead of us in the distance. We can just make it out, but we can’t yet see all the details. Developing a better understanding of our historic relationships is but one of the many signposts that will keep us on the path of Reconciliation. The historical community has already been deeply involved in this process, writing and researching and reframing this history, especially with respect to Residential Schools. But we must do more. To echo the words of Mercedes Peters in her recent post in Acadiensis, as historians, we have a responsibility to not only bring the events of the past to light but also to show how it can be applied to the present. We need to tell the “complete history”, a history that makes us understand the mistakes of the past; a history that helps us understand the challenges we face right now; and a history that helps us plot out our future together. To do so, we need make our work more accessible and more transparent. We need to work together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, academic and consulting historians, those inside and outside of government.
As Public Servants, and not just those of us at Indigenous and Northern Affairs, we need to take the time to listen and, more importantly, to hear the words of elders, community leaders, historians, and commentators about the foundation of these relationships. For too long, we have been trying to piece it together by ourselves. But in a strong relationship, we should be doing this together. Only once we’ve heard and acknowledge these shared histories, we will understand how our work is shaped by the past and how it will guide us towards a more inclusive future. Hopefully, once we’ve learnt to reconcile our understanding of these historic relationships, we will be able to reconcile the interests of governments and Indigenous communities in a way that is truly beneficial for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
It’s a big challenge and it will not be easy. Some may reject this shared narrative, while others may be overwhelmed by the mistakes of our predecessors. But there will be some who will hear it, and will see themselves as part of these relationships. There are many signs that they are already here. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples working together to create improved Indigenous-Crown relations. Notably, the inclusion of Indigeneity is on the rise, from tonight's acknowledgement that were are here in unceded Anishinabeg territory, to the renaming of streets in Toronto with Indigenous languages to the Winnipeg Jets recognising that they play in Treaty 1 territory before every game. This is but the start of Reconciliation and we must follow the direction of the TRC to place this societal change on a firm foundation of shared history.
Reconciliation is an ongoing process that has no fixed end because Reconciliation, just relationships, is constantly evolving. But one day, I sincerely believe that Reconciliation will work, and we will truly be a country that understands its history, understands its peoples and strives for the betterment of all Canadians.
Thank you. Merci. Megwich.