In Canada, the process of reconciliation is tied to the federal government's relationship with Indigenous peoples. The term has come to describe attempts made by individuals and institutions to raise awareness about colonization and its ongoing effects on Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation also refers to efforts made to address the harms caused by various policies and programs of colonization, such as residential schools. For some, the word represents an opportunity to reflect on the past, to heal and to make right. For others, however, current gestures of reconciliation are merely performative and lack meaningful action to address the harms done by colonization.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — which was set up in 2008 to document the effects of residential schools on Indigenous peoples — defined reconciliation as the process of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” The TRC went on to say that in order for reconciliation to happen in Canada, “there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”
Official discourse about the idea of reconciliation in Canada began in 1998, when the federal government responded to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ report, which included a chapter on Indian residential schools. The response was called Gathering Strength: Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan and included a Statement of Reconciliation. In it, the Canadian government recognized its own policies aimed to assimilate Indigenous people, and the role it played in the development and administration of residential schools. At the unveiling of the report, the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jane Stewart, outlined the federal government’s commitment of $350 million for community-based healing “as a first step to deal with the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools.” Canada’s official apology for residential schools came 11 years later in 2008, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In 2005, the federal government announced the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement compensation package. Among other issues, the package set aside $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to document the experiences of residential school survivors. The TRC’s Calls to Action, released in 2015, became a focus for organizations, corporations and ministries in Canada, seeking to improve Indigenous people’s experiences with child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice.
Among Indigenous peoples, the term “reconciliation” was widely used after the TRC’s report in the hopes that governments would address the multiple incidents and forms of abuse carried out at residential schools. This perspective, and the optimism implied, have been diminished by criticisms and questions about how reconciliation efforts have (or have not) been carried out, and what reconciliation actually means in this context.
Educational institutions, especially elementary and high schools, made some of the more significant changes following the TRC’s Calls to Action, including substantial overhauls to curricula to include the history of residential schools. Other institutions, such as child welfare agencies and the health care and justice systems, have been slower to enact meaningful changes that seek to improve their relationships with and treatment of Indigenous people. For example, Indigenous people are still overrepresented in the justice system, Indigenous babies and children are still apprehended at levels that far exceed non-Indigenous people (see also Sixties Scoop), and a marked imbalance in the level of health care available to many Indigenous people means that they still lag far behind most Canadians in terms of general health – including earlier deaths. (See also Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Many reserves also continue to have limited or no access to clean water supplies. (See also Racial Segregation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his intention to create a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in 2018. However, a February 2019 bill to create this holiday never passed. In June 2021, Bill C-5 to recognize the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation received Royal Assent. On 30 September 2021, the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation took place. This day also represents Orange Shirt Day. Much like the relationship this holiday initially aimed to fix, some Indigenous people in Canada note that the concept of reconciliation is unclear. They note that the Canadian government continues to take Indigenous people to court over their assertion of their rights and title. At the same time, Indigenous people have won more than 250 Canadian court cases regarding their land. (See also Indigenous Territory.)
In 2019, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Premier John Horgan called it a guide to “ensure that reconciliation is lasting.” However, since BC adopted UNDRIP, Indigenous people say that their rights have not been respected. Leaders say that includes a lack of consultation from government; a lack of recognition of their rights on health and safety concerns and, similarly, about resource projects on their land. (See also Duty to Consult.)
Some Indigenous people have pointed out that their communities still do not have access to basic human rights like clean drinking water, safety and education — rights that other Canadians enjoy. (See also Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Some also argue that the present system amounts to a form of tilted power distribution, so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people do not arrive at the table as peers, but as have and have-nots. In this way, reconciliation efforts are seen as performative rather than genuine.
Hope for Reconciliation
Organizations like Reconciliation Canada and educational institutions like schools and universities have bolstered more dialogue about Indigenous people historically and today. They do so under the theme and end-goal of reconciliation. As a result of the TRC, many Canadians are now informed about the effects of colonization, residential schools and the racist attitudes that founded both. (See also Indian Act.) For survivors of residential schools, conversations around reconciliation have been paramount to creating awareness of past harms and change needed in Canada. The TRC led to significant changes in the way Canadians understand their own history, including Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people.
While the word ‘reconciliation’ continues to mean different things to different people – and remains controversial among Indigenous people for the lack of accompanying action – reasons for optimism remain. Individual and institutional efforts can lead to meaningful dialogue and efforts to improve the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada, and to continue to right historic wrongs in a manner that brings Indigenous people respect for their full rights and appropriate accompanying treatment.