Reconciliation wasn't a word often used in the 20th century when it came to the relationship between First Nations and the broader Canadian community.
The level of misunderstanding about indigenous peoples created a huge gulf when in everything from policing to the resource industry to government relations. There was also widespread ignorance about the history of residential schools in mainstream society.
First Nations repeatedly went to court to assert their rights, winning a string of victories in the Supreme Court of Canada. In one of the early cases in 1973, Calder v British Columbia, there was a split decision on whether aboriginal title existed post-Confederation.
Subsequent decisions recognized the Crown's fiduciary duty to First Nations, aboriginal people's constitutional right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes, that courts must take into account indigenous people's perspectives, and that aboriginal title existed post-Confederation.
The court decisions advanced indigenous people's legal rights, but it took a wise man named Chief Robert Joseph to help British Columbians understand the true meaning of reconciliation.
The hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation could have easily become a statistic. At six years old, he was sent to a residential school in Alert Bay.
“My worst memory of food was, I was so hungry one morning when we got to breakfast, and they had our porridge in little bowls in front of us, and they had all these little black-headed worms dancing in the porridge—and I was so hungry I just ate it,” Joseph told the Georgia Straight in 2011.
He also endured unspeakable abuse as a child, which contributed to difficult times with alcohol as a young man in a country plagued with deep racism against indigenous people. But he managed to turn his life around, finding meaning in coming to terms with his pain, and dedicated his life as a voice for reconciliation.
Joseph spoke to countless groups about peace both in Canada and abroad. He educated corporate executives, police officers, the heads of Crown corporations, and many faith groups. Gradually, over a long period of time, he fostered greater insights into the horrific long-term legacy of residential schools, as well as what was necessary to achieve true reconciliation.
As executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, he was deeply involved in discussions when the Assembly of First Nations took the federal government and churches to court over the treatment of indigenous children in their care.
That led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which Joseph advised. Some wanted a public inquiry, but in the end, the decision was made to enable everyone who attended these schools to have a chance to share their story.
He also met then prime minister Stephen Harper to discuss the wording of his official apology in Parliament in 2008.
For anyone who hears Joseph speak, it's hard to conceive that this gentle, kind-hearted man who's so full of humour could have once been in such a forlorn state. He's a testament to the power of the human spirit.
This weekend in Vancouver, there are two opportunities to hear Chief Robert Joseph, or "Bobby Joe" as he's sometimes called. He'll be at the Voices of Elders event on Friday (April 22) and TEDxEastVan on Saturday (April 23).
Joseph also spearheaded Vancouver's Walk for Reconciliation in 2013, which attracted 70,000 people on a rainy day in downtown Vancouver. Together, indigenous and nonindigenous people walked across the viaducts and back down West Pender Street before reaching a celebration in the huge parking lots beside Science World. For those who attended, it was one of the most memorable events of the year.
Earlier this year, Chief Robert Joseph received the prestigious Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award, which is named after two diplomats who saved thousands of Jewish people from being sent to gas chambers.
It's one of many honours bestowed on the elder, who is currently the ambassador for the registered charity Reconciliation Canada. The organization provides reconciliation-based leadership training, public awareness, dialogue sessions, economic plans, and education, all with the goal of furthering reconciliation and positive change across Canada.