Chief Robert Joseph draws on personal experiences to advance reconciliation
Anyone who meets Robert Joseph would have trouble imagining him as the town drunk.
Sitting in his North Vancouver office on top of the Staples store near the corner of Capilano Road and Marine Drive, the hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation is everything—and more—that you would expect to encounter in a respected Indigenous elder.
He’s charming, eloquent, wise, and smiles easily, yet he also resonates the toughness that one would expect from years of working in a resource industry. Along with a riotous sense of humour, he has a keen intellect and sharp sense of recall.
It’s these qualities that have helped make Joseph a national leader in bringing about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
As ambassador for the nonprofit group that he cofounded, Reconciliation Canada, he and his daughter Karen spearheaded Vancouver’s 2013 Walk for Reconciliation. It brought approximately 70,000 people out on a rainy September day to demonstrate their commitment to form a better relationship between Canada’s First Nations and descendants of settlers.
“It was tremendously successful and beneficial to the movement of reconciliation,” Joseph told the Georgia Straight in an interview at his office. “We always thought a reconciliation walk is powerfully symbolic.”
Now Reconciliation Canada, the City of Vancouver, and Vancouver’s three host First Nations—the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh—are in the final stages of planning another Walk for Reconciliation. It's a signature Canada 150+ event, which is celebrating the thousands of years of Coast Salish presence within the Vancouver area.
Beginning outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday (September 24), the walk's participants will continue across the Georgia Viaduct and end at Strathcona Park.
That will be the site of a “Reconciliation Expo”, which will include community booths, cultural activities, artisans, and children’s entertainment. There will also be musical and dance performances from Susan Aglukark, N’we Jinan, the Eagle Song Dancers, and others. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, will deliver a keynote speech.
“Reconciliation has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on who we are collectively and to reflect on what has gone wrong—and to dream together,” Joseph said. “To envision a future together that’s inclusive, more equal, more just, and that every child born in this country has the same potential to strive for something.”
The first Walk for Reconciliation coincided with the visit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to Vancouver. The commission came about as a result of an agreement between the Assembly of First Nations, churches, and the federal government to settle outstanding legal claims arising from the treatment of Indigenous children in church-run residential schools.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools, which were part of a national policy to assimilate Indigenous people. Kids who went to these schools were often abused and forbidden to speak their language or engage in cultural activities.
Joseph was one of those students. He was sent to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay for 11 years. He recalled being abused by both a male and a female staff member at the school on Cormorant Island, just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
“People who were supposed to take care of us would beat us at every provocation, drag us around by the ear, strap us with every conceivable instrument they had on hand,” Joseph said. “And they just minimized and denigrated our sense of well-being. They were really racist and cruel.”
It was at that school in Alert Bay that he had his first drink. According to Joseph, it felt so good. In that moment, he felt brave. He knew who he was.
“Suddenly, I have all these characteristics that I can’t exercise in normal school life,” he said.
He went on a bender on graduation day and returned to the school two or three days later.
The principal asked if he could speak to Joseph. Then this man who had tormented him for years said: “For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re going to make it.”
Joseph couldn’t believe it. This was the same guy who had bent him over a chair in front of the whole school and whacked his bare ass with a leather strap.
“A couple of times he locked me up in the quarantine room, where nobody was allowed to talk to me,” Joseph said. “He just fed me bread and water for two or three days.”
As a young adult, Joseph would find jobs, sometimes really good ones, but then squander these opportunities away by drinking alcohol. He was lonely in residential school, so he vowed to get married.
After doing that, he and his wife had five children. He had a nice house in Campbell River in the mid-1970s, and to the outside world he was doing well. But inside, Joseph said, he was suffering. And in 1977, his wife took off with the kids for a while, leaving him alone.
“I drank days on days on days and didn’t even go to work anymore,” he revealed.
He became the town drunk until one day a friend told him that he was better than that. This friend took him aboard his fishing boat so he could sober up.
“I got there and I passed out,” Joseph recalled. “I woke up the next morning and the first thing that hits you is the smell of booze coming out of your pores, right? Then it floods over you: the despair and darkness, the shame and the hurt and everything.”
But something happened this time that had never occurred before. As he was on his knees on the deck of the boat, he looked around and could feel the energy and the colours of the ocean, the Vancouver Island forest off in the distance, and the sky above.
“The foliage was so green, so powerful, it had lightning bolts going through it,” Joseph said.
He described this event as like being in a theatre observing the universe. “Then I heard this voice and it said, ‘In spite of what you’ve done to yourself, I love you and you’re part of all this.’ And then suddenly I came back,” he revealed. “I’m on a deck. I’m still as broken. That was it.”
This epiphany led Joseph to resolve to live his life responsibly, giving others their sense of worth, value, purpose, and respect.
“Everybody matters. Everybody belongs,” he said. “We have to find a way to get all these everybodies to start talking to each other so we can quit hurting each other. That’s what’s kind of driven me to this work.”
He acknowledged that even when he was “broken”, he still tried to find ways to remedy injustices for Aboriginal people. But once he really got his bearings, he took these efforts to new levels. As the long-time head of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, Joseph played a leadership role in the discussions that led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
He emphasized the importance of recognizing that Indigenous people had well-organized societies before European colonization.
“We had our forms of government,” he noted. “We exercised our spirituality in unique and different ways but profound nonetheless. We’re equal to any other form, faith, or worship that has come to these lands since.”
He was sitting in the gallery in Parliament in 2008 when the then–prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, delivered an apology on the floor of the House of Commons to former residential-school students.
“I heard the words, ‘I’m sorry.’ I just cried,” Joseph said. “I didn’t have to hear anymore. I had waited all my life for somebody to say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
He wasn’t concerned that it came from Harper, who was disliked by most Indigenous people. What was important is that it came from the most senior official in the Canadian government.
But Joseph also declared that reconciliation is not something that should be left in the hands of politicians. It's up to all of us.
“Reconciliation is when we get together and we’re able to look each other in the eyeball and have real discussions about the differences between us, respectfully, and to figure out ways to move beyond some of those barriers," he said.
“I’m a realist, too,” Joseph added. “I mean, perfection never happens. It’s just elusive. They crucified the last guy who was perfect, right? So reconciliation is something that comes out of deep discussions and mutual respect. It’s not predesigned and it’s not for one side or the other. It’s for the best interest of the larger collective humanity.”
The Walk for Reconciliation begins at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday (September 24) outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. From there, it will proceed to Strathcona Park, where there will be free entertainment and exhibits from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.