In talking about truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada, the process, like the phrase, needs to start with truth – acknowledging the truths about what happened on this land.
That’s where Kendra Gage, the executive director of the Hulitan Family and Community Services Society, said we need to start. A path forward starts on the personal level, with everyone taking the responsibility to learn about what’s been done to Indigenous people since European colonists arrived and the systems they’re forced to navigate today.
“It’s about really understanding our history,” she said. “You have to know the truth before you can reconcile.”
Just outside her office window is a tree with orange shirts draped on the trunk and children’s shoes placed by the roots. They’re reminders that Canada’s history includes the horrors of residential schools, the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop and all of their lasting impacts.
Governments forced people off the lands where they had lived since time immemorial and moved them onto reserves. Gage noted they were moved to where the Canadian state wanted to put them, often not in the same territory where people lived, and they’d be moved again whenever the government wanted resources in that area. And now, Indigenous people are still subject to policies that systematically leave them disadvantaged or ignored entirely – all spurred from that displacement.
As an example, Gage pointed to Jordan’s Principle, which honours a Norway House Cree Nation boy who needed specific home-based care, but never got it and died in hospital because the federal and provincial governments argued for years over who should pay for his care. It shows, Gage said, how even after governments forced Indigenous people onto reserves, they’ve failed to allocate basic resources on those reserves, while non-Indigenous communities don’t face those same problems.
It pains her to still see people and politicians in this country downplay the intent and abuse of the residential school system, along with the ongoing trauma it inflicted on generations.
“I don’t think anybody that has children in this country would be okay with someone coming and taking their child, stripping them of everything they know and love, telling them they’re horrible human beings and beating them into submission.”
Now is the time for Canadians to look inward and acknowledge such tragic truths.
Gage said accepting and talking about how the country has wronged Indigenous people risks Canada’s international reputation but also shows how Canada isn’t currently living up to it. By acknowledging and acting on repairing that relationship, it could one day meet that perception, she said.
“An apology is only a real apology if you change the behaviour, it’s a recognition of the harm and a commitment not to do that again,” she said. “I’m not saying we can’t accomplish that.”
People also can’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening right now, she said, like the child welfare system’s targeting of Indigenous communities.
“We’re still removing Indigenous children away from families, removing them from their culture, but we were just placing them in foster homes,” she said. “If we think the same things aren’t happening, we’ve chosen not to open our eyes.”
Gage encourages people to question why and how racial bias still exists in Canada. She hopes people will educate themselves about the importance of an equitable society that lifts everyone up and gives all people the opportunity to thrive.
After more than 20 years of working with Indigenous communities, she’s still learning, but Gage said that commitment to listening and talking about hard truths is essential on the path to reconciliation.
“Being invited into community and being a member of community is the most beautiful gift I’ve ever been given in my life.”
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