This story was originally posted on Passport 2017.
On the darkest pages of Canadian history books, you will find the words “cultural genocide”—broadly defined as systemic destruction of the language, traditions, values and other qualities that make one group of people distinct from others. The term applies to the shameful legacy of what used to be called Indian residential schools: federally funded, church-administered institutes that separated 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and tried to assimilate them to Christian culture. From the mid-19th century through the 1970s, up to 6,000 students died of tuberculosis, malnutrition and other maladies while attending the schools. Many others suffered physical and sexual abuse.
In 2008, Stephen Harper apologized for most (but not all) of this miserable past; his government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to investigate the schools. The TRC’s final report, released in 2015, recommended 94 calls to action in areas ranging from child welfare to justice to equity and more. Much work remains to be done.
To that end, the phrase “Namwayut—We are all one” has become a mission statement for Reconciliation Canada, a grassroots effort to strengthen the bonds between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians. This year the Vancouver-based organization is focusing its efforts on Reconciliation in Action: A National Engagement Strategy, a multi-part plan to acknowledge the past, assess the present and prepare for the future.
“Reconciliation is a movement that’s happening in the country right now. It’s bigger than any one of us,” says Michelle Cho, Reconciliation Canada’s director of marketing, communications and outreach. “We’re taking this as an educational opportunity to look at the past 150 years, and how we want to improve our relationships with each other for the next 150 years.”
The strategy launched in 2016, and has already hosted gatherings of community leaders from diverse backgrounds in Whitehorse, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montreal and Membertou, Nova Scotia. These events are designed for up to a few hundred participants each, and include panels of survivors. “Every gathering is different,” says Cho. “We work really hard to create a safe space so people feel open to discussing and sharing their unique experiences and perspectives, and also collaboratively talking about reconciliation and how they want to move forward within their own circles of influence.”
Reconciliation Canada has also produced an online survey that invites all Canadians to share their opinions about this important topic, and a Back Pocket Reconciliation Action Plan that prompts us to download, print and carry personal pledges. The latter has already provoked responses like “Learn to say ‘hello,’ ‘how are you,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ in Lekwungen” and “Encourage those around me to use correct terminology, as well as explaining why other terms are bad.”
This year, the National Engagement Strategy will evolve to include a “thought table” on reconciliation (with hopes of national television broadcast), a written report on current understandings of reconciliation, celebrations in major urban centres (watch out for public walks in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto this fall) and more.
“Reconciliation Canada’s goal is to catalyze action. We see initiatives coming up where municipalities are making proclamations and school teachers are adjusting their curriculums,” says Cho. “Local community action is a beautiful thing, and a great way of seeing the progress that we’re making along this complex and long journey.”