Cay Burton: Reconciliation is dead—the educational ramifications of an empty promise
By Cay Burton
Reconciliation was a promise.
It promised a better future between Indigenous peoples and settlers living in Canada, one where the wisdom, protocols, and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples are viewed as essential to bringing about a more socially just and historically conscious society.
Canada lost something critical last week by shoving aside efforts toward positive settler-Indigenous relations in order to mobilize, with exactitude, the ever-reaching, greedy-fingered arms of the state.
As a university teaching assistant and early childhood educator and caregiver living on the stolen land of the Coast Salish peoples in Vancouver, I’ve been teaching other young people about the ‘promise’ of reconciliation. I’ve been dedicating a large portion of my pedagogical practice to the belief in reconciliation as a worthwhile concept, as something that really matters and can make a difference if only applied in appropriate, meaningful ways.
Now, losing this promise—something I was hopeful enough to believe in—has left me with the realization that I can no longer teach about reconciliation in the same way as I have previously. The terrain has shifted. What and how can I educate individuals about this concept when Canada’s government has forcefully divested itself of all responsibility? What does ‘leading by example’ even mean anymore?
I am faced with a broken heart at seeing the Wet’suwet’en peoples arrested and removed from their traditional territory by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers. These emotions of shame, horror, and injustice exist alongside those of my Indigenous colleagues, friends, and kinship members, who have shared with me emotions ranging from exhaustion, catharsis, anger, exhilaration, bravery, and reproach. All of these emotions are justified in this struggle against ongoing colonial oppression.
My social media is extra heavy these days. I've been watching video clips where uniformed officers blithely remove the red dresses symbolizing the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls at Unist’ot’en camp as if untouched by the weightiness of grief woven into the fabric. Another moment in this country’s history where state violence and corporate greed are revealed to be more important to our government than the lives of Indigenous peoples is captured in that same video, when the barricade bearing “reconciliation” is disassembled by the RCMP to arrest land protectors.
There is no reconciliation here, and—I’m realizing now—perhaps there has never been.
The B.C. government’s lack of sympathy for Indigenous livelihood, and the federal government’s reluctance (in Trudeau’s words) to “tell the police what to do” in this situation, has solidified the reality that whatever trust was slowly gaining momentum between settler and Indigenous communities in Canada was not ever part of the government’s agenda.
There’s a small ray of light here though, if we can bring ourselves to see it.
Also mistakenly absent from the government’s consideration was the potential for large-scale, consolidated efforts to be achieved by those who are committed to collective healing on Indigenous terms. The remarkable demonstrations of strength, solidarity, and allyship that protesters and land defenders across the country reveal that there is power in a movement informed by both Indigenous Knowledges and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While reconciliation might be dead, allyship and collective resistance against colonization is not.
I find solace in this and am reminded, as an educator, that numbers 62 to 65 of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action are demands made by Indigenous chiefs, community members, and residential school survivors to decolonize educational spaces. Even if state-defined reconciliation is dead, I will still teach these stories and follow the recommendations laid out in the TRC for educational settings and classrooms. I will use these Calls to Action in an ongoing effort towards allyship, teaching children and young people about the colonial context in which they’re learning, including whose land they’re occupying. I will have these difficult conversations and continue to shut down discrimination in learning environments because this is what it means to teach and tell the truth.
I credit my friend, Evans Yellow Old Woman of the Siksika First Nation, with articulating this very important dimension of Canada-defined reconciliation: Indigenous peoples have nothing to reconcile with. It is settler Canadians who must reconcile with both the colonial past and present of our country by listening to and collaborating with hereditary chiefs and other Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers to find solutions that sustain, and humble, all of us into the future.
Through this, hope re-emerges for the Canadian nation state to move toward more equitable and transparent collaboration with Indigenous peoples. But only then, and—with the climate crisis biting at our heels in reminder that poisoning the waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest with the Coastal GasLink pipeline is a disastrous idea—the time is now.
Leaving behind empty promises, the way forward becomes clear.