#792 Fine words butter no parsnips
Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips & Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality
by Bob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph
Vancouver: Page Two Books, 2019, distributed by Raincoast Books
$19.95 / 9781989025642
Reviewed by David Milward
What does Indigenous reconciliation in Canada mean? Almost five years have elapsed since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its Final Reports, along with 94 Calls to Action meant to realize reconciliation. It has been a source of debate among academics. Some academics have stressed that reconciliation must mean that the Canadian state should work in genuine partnership with Indigenous peoples, even to the point of giving up power and sharing that power with Indigenous peoples, in order to end Indigenous social problems. Glen Coulthard articulates a more pessimistic viewpoint, that reconciliation carries with it the danger of empowering the state to sustain the status quo of continued colonialism and to the detriment of Indigenous peoples. If the experts are themselves divided on what reconciliation means, it stands to reason that the content and meaning of reconciliation remain elusive for almost everybody else.
And it turns out that there are significant numbers of Canadians whose understanding of reconciliation is limited and based on flawed assumptions. An Angus Reid poll in 2018 indicated that 53 percent among 2,500 Canadian participants felt that Canada spends too much time apologizing for residential schools, and 53 percent felt that Indigenous peoples should fully integrate into mainstream Canadian society without any special legal considerations or status. As a worse example, Senator Lynn Beyak has publicly defended the residential schools as “well-intentioned” and having had positive impacts that have been overshadowed by the negative depictions of the TRC. She even went as far as publishing over 100 letters supportive of her viewpoints on her official website, with many of those letters espousing frankly racist descriptions of Indigenous peoples as freeloaders trying to milk their traditional cultures and political correctness for even more handouts.
We have seen so many other studies and commissions on Canadian-Indigenous relations, such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, collect dust without much in the way of social change. Will the Calls to Action suffer a similar fate? Prime Minister Trudeau promised to implement every single Call to Action as part of his election platform shortly after the Final Reports were released. He has sometimes come under criticism from Indigenous leaders for dragging his feet in delivering on his promises for Indigenous reconciliation.
Indigenous Relations, by Bob and Cynthia Joseph, is a thorough attempt to explore what is required to actually achieve true reconciliation. A key strength of the book that I appreciate is a recognition that reconciliation needs to unfold not just in academic and policy circles, but on a far more extensive and grassroots level. People in everyday walks of life, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, need to buy into reconciliation to make it happen. Without that broad-based buy in, all the academic writing and policy discussions and legislation will only amount to so many words on a page that become meaningless in the real world.
This book, once it gets past its introductions, is often written in a style similar to the “(insert subject) for Dummies” and “The Idiot’s Guide to (insert subject)” books that were popular in the 90s and 00s. The basic premise of those books was to explain specialized knowledge bases in ways that were accessible and learnable to lay audiences. But the Josephs are aware that issues like racism and historical responsibility can be sensitive subjects that can place their readers in defensive and uncomfortable positions. So they take great care to articulate their message in a style that resembles those other books, but also in a way that avoids the negative connotations that those other books can sometimes convey, even if unintentionally.
And there are different topics that the authors try to educate their readers on. One is the myth that the Treaties and other legal obligations to Indigenous peoples are a tiresome burden on Canadian society, while Indigenous peoples enjoy a free ride. The authors convey the reality, in accurate yet succinct and understandable terms, that everything that Canadian society enjoys nowadays are benefits stemming from the Treaty relationships. Another myth they seek to dispel is the myth that the residential schools are a thing of the past, thereby voiding present-day Canadians of any ongoing responsibility for Indigenous social problems.
But the Josephs are not interested only in correcting understandings of the past. They lay out a blueprint for positive and productive relationships between Canada and Indigenous peoples on a day-to-day basis to lay the groundwork for reconciliation. The key fundamental first step for non-Indigenous Canadians is to do some basic research on Indigenous peoples prior to interactions. What are a particular First Nation’s world views? What are the goals and hopes of a particular Indigenous community or organization? What are the cultural expectations and protocols of a particular Indigenous society?
Then it is a matter of putting it into practice, engaging with Indigenous peoples in ways that both avoid disrespect towards Indigenous peoples but show proper respect for Indigenous peoples at the same time. One example, out of many, stood out to me. Touting one’s own individual credentials makes sense when one is applying for jobs in competitive capitalist job market. But to start off interactions with an Indigenous community in that manner can come across as braggadocio, and holding yourself out as doing the community a favour as a matter of condescending compassion. Instead, one should offer to share his or her own learning and in turn be willing to learn from the community. Sometimes one needs to shake oneself out of what is cognitively familiar, and be willing to do things differently outside of that comfort zone. Do the research to learn about matters, then put it into action.
Each individual interaction may not seem like a big deal in isolation. But the authors recognize that there is value in these small-scale interactions. Each can contribute to the critical mass towards reconciliation that the authors hope for. That critical mass is just as vital to the project of reconciliation as the Calls to Action and any legislation or policy that can be contemplated. And indeed, just to prove that it is too easy to dismiss even the most minute of incidents as a triviality, the authors also reference an incident where a Victoria’s Secret model wore a headdress on a catwalk. It may not seem like a big deal at first blush. But take into consideration that the model is wearing nothing else besides the headdress and lingerie, and it is not hard to see the potential to contribute to ongoing negative images of Indigenous women. And indeed, an identified contributor to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been the attitude held by some non-Indigenous men that Indigenous women serve no purpose other than their own pleasure.
Bob and Cynthia Joseph authors recognize that the smallest of actions can have enormous ripple effects, either positive or negative. And that is why, in their view, reconciliation needs that critical mass of daily interactions that are properly respectful, understanding, and empowering of Indigenous peoples. I honestly do not think the authors could have done a better job in realizing their aims. The only barrier to succeeding in their objective is the willingness of non-Indigenous readers to pick up Indigenous Relations and begin engaging with some hard truths, however uncomfortable it may be to begin with.
David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. David is also the author of numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals.
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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).
 Michael Murphy, “Civilization, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation,” in Annis May Timpson, ed., First Nations, First Thoughts: The Impact of Indigenous Thought in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009), p. 251; Brian Rice & Anna Snyder, “Reconciliation in the Context of a Settler Society: Healing the Legacy of Colonialism in Canada,” in Aboriginal Healing Foundation, From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2008), p. 45.
 Glen Coulthard, Red Faces, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
 Angus Reid Institute, Truths of Reconciliation: Canadians are deeply divided on how best to address Indigenous issues (Vancouver, Angus Reid Institute, 2018).
 Andrew Russell, “Sen. Lynn Beyak publishes ‘outright racist’ comments about Indigenous people on her website,” Global News, January 5, 2018.
 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, “Looking Forward, Looking Back” (Ottawa: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996), p. 648.
 John Paul Tasker, “‘We are all impatient’: Trudeau promises First Nations leaders fundamental change” CBC News, May 2, 2018.