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PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2023 2:30 pm

I started writing this article on October 1, 2023, the day after Canada’s third annual Truth and Reconciliation Day. Also known as ‘Orange Shirt Day’, after a girl whose brand-new orange shirt was confiscated when she was taken to residential schools, Truth and Reconciliation Day is a way to honour the survivors of residential schools and the students who never made it home. It’s also a way for settler Canadians to learn and reflect about the ugly legacy of the residential school system, and to work towards what I call the ‘Four Indigenous Rs’, namely restitution, restoration, rights and reconciliation.

Namwayut: We Are All One-A Path To Reconciliation (Friesens, 2022), written by Robert Joseph, a hereditary Chief of the Gwaewaenuk people and a residential school survivor, is a powerful source of such information. In it, Chief Joseph shares his personal story, from his early childhood on Canada’s west coast where he started learning his culture’s teachings, to the abuse and violence he suffered at residential school, to the shame and pain that led him to a destructive bout with alcoholism, to his starting a career and family before he kicked the bottle by reconnecting with his culture, to his more recent activism on behalf of residential school survivors and his work towards reconciliation.

Chief Joseph structures the book in short chapters, each of which touches on a certain stage of his life. This makes the book quick and easy to read, even for people who aren’t big readers. Chief Joseph also writes with a plain, yet evocative style that makes his work as accessible as Arthur Manuel’s and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson’s The Reconciliation Manifesto. Much like Manuel and Derrickson’s work, however, easy accessibility doesn’t make for easy reading.

Chief Joseph’s story and what he experienced parallels the larger story of what Indigenous people have experienced from non-Native Canadian governments and society. He starts by describing the positive relationships he had with his fellow Gwaewaenuk people and their connections to the land, much like the First Nations and Inuit had before European colonization, a feeling reflected among many of the contributors to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. His experiences in residential school puts a human face on the horrifying abuse Indigenous children suffered, while the “teachers”’ attitudes reflected a view common then (and still too prevalent today) that Indigenous people were dumb, primitive “savages” that were doomed to disappear. They had to be assimilated-forcefully, if need be-for their own good.

Chief Joseph then describes the alcoholism the abuse led him to suffer, and the grief it caused his family, in between trying to scrape together a living. This is a pattern all too common among Indigenous families in Canada, a pattern that the residential schools and their abuses are directly responsible for. The attitude among many non-Native Canadians for decades was that Native people had nobody to blame but themselves for their problems, and that it was their own fault if they were (in non-Native eyes) lazy bums who preferred to get drunk than do an honest days’ work.

Chief Joseph goes on to describe how he’d hit rock bottom while lying on a beach on Cormorant Island after a drinking binge, and how he started restoring himself. In part, he did it through the university education he acquired (part of a tendency among Indigenous people in Canada to turn tools meant for assimilation into tools of resistance) and reconnecting with his identity and culture. He also became a journalist with the Vancouver Sun and kicked his drinking habit after it nearly cost him his family.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Indigenous people became more and more vocal about the racism and abuse they faced in Canadian society. Cree writer Harold Cardinal wrote The Unjust Society as a blistering reply to Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper, while Secwépemc writer George Manuel discussed the concept of the “Fourth World”, a way that Indigenous peoples’ rights could be recognized by national governments in his book The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. Cardinal and Manuel were just two examples of a larger Indigenous political renaissance, one that Chief Joseph was very much a part of.

A cultural renaissance came along with the political one. Chief Joseph became involved in the Potlatch ceremonies common among west coast First Nations, eventually becoming a hereditary chief among his community. He goes into some detail describing the role Potlatches had in restoring Indigenous peoples’ cultural pride and the healing impacts they could have, particularly for residential school survivors.

Indigenous ceremonies and culture are major fixtures of Canadian life these days. National Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day to for Indigenous peoples to celebrate their identity through art, music and cultural ceremonies like powwows. Those same ceremonies show up more and more in non-Native circles too, as smudging and blessing ceremonies have become staples of everything from school orientations to municipal councils’ swearing-in ceremonies. Indigenous artists’ works are common in museums, their music is all over the airwaves and they produce an increasing number of TV series and movies. Far from the idea of the ‘vanishing Indian’, Indigenous peoples’ roles in Canadian society has grown and continues to grow, along the lines of ‘Indigenous control of Canadian affairs’ as advocated by thinkers like Anishinaabe academic John Borrows.

In a lot of ways, Chief Joseph’s life is a metaphor for the larger trajectory Indigenous people have experienced in Canada, particularly in the last few decades. More than that, though, as the title “Namwayut” suggests, Chief Joseph’s writings also have a broader meaning, one that extends to all of us as Canadians.

Near the end of the book, Chief Joseph talks about a massive impending shift that’s starting to happen now that knowledge of the racism and abuse Indigenous people have endured and continue to face has spread, a shift that can make Canada a better country. He discusses how truth can, in its own way, help us get past the fear that many non-Native people and their leaders felt of losing control and access to the lands that became Canada and other countries in the Americas. That fear led them to cause the harms Chief Joseph describes. When we understand each other and ourselves better, that can lead to true healing.

A recurring theme in Namwayut is Chief Joseph’s reminder to non-Native readers that the values of reconciliation and self-worth apply to us, too. We too have value and deserve to heal and be loved. We and our cultures all have an important role to play in reconciliation. In one of the book’s the final chapters, Chief Joseph talks about returning to ‘Genesis’, not just for Indigenous people but for all of us. Returning to Genesis involves remembering our roots, where we came from and how we got here. He concludes by discussing the tools we have to support reconciliation, including the recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report.

That, in turn, leads to one of the major critiques some might make of this book. Some commentators would probably say Chief Joseph is being too optimistic, given the slow pace at which the TRC’s recommendations are being implemented, not to mention expressions of racism that’re still all too common among non-Native people. On the other hand, Chief Joseph also spends a lot of time describing the positive ways in which non-Native people and Indigenous people have come together, and the many efforts and initiatives people have made to try and make things right.

The other critique one might make has to do with the elephant (or perhaps buffalo) in the room, namely the restoration of Indigenous land bases and governance systems. Other Indigenous commentators like Arthur Manueland Pamela Palmater have spoken about how important this restoration is for true reconciliation to take place. Reconciliation is only one of what I call the ‘4 Indigenous Rs’, the others being Rights, Restoration and Restitution. They’re all going to be necessary if we want Canada to truly reach what it can stand for. Unfortunately, Chief Joseph doesn’t speak about this much. How and when should these transitions take place?

But perhaps Namwayut isn’t intended for that kind of discussion that other writers handle so well. What it does do is put a very personal face on the whole idea of reconciliation with Indigenous people, using one man’s story to show what it can mean.

That same story also reminds the reader of the importance of knowing the past, how it’s impacted the present, and how it can help shape the future.

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