A day after national residential school abuse hearings wrapped up in Vancouver, B.C., tens of thousands of people sprawled through the city's downtown, calling for a new relationship between Canadians and aboriginals.
Organizers of Canada's first-ever Reconciliation Walk estimated the crowd at 70,000 strong, and spanned many blocks as people braved rainy weather to hear speakers that included the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice King. As well as the historic walk, Reconciliation Week also included an ocean-going canoe event with hundreds of paddlers on September 17, before the hearings opened.
“The message for me is one of hope, strength, keeping our dignity intact and moving forward with a great degree of confidence,” said Grand Chief Edward John, the executive of the B.C. First Nations Summit. “Events like this help our people move forward, to acknowledge the past with other Canadians … and for them to understand and collectively try to reconcile that dark past.”
Last year John, the Hereditary Chief of Tl'azt'en Nation, was also elected chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a post he held this year as well.
Like many aboriginal people in Canada, he comes from generations of stolen children in his own family. When he was seized by authorities, he said, his distraught sister ran crying onto the bus that was taking him away. Without a word of explanation to their parents, they grabbed her as well.
“They just took her,” he said. “We were just kids. They went after our families, our communities where we lived, our languages, our cultures, our songs and teachings—to disrupt them [and] Christianize and ‘civilize’ us.”
A generation earlier, John's father had been similarly seized.
“The police came to the village and told my grandparents that if they didn't let them take my dad to school, they would be incarcerated and put in jail,” John recalled. “It has disconnected and broken down our families in many ways. It has created a whole foundation of dysfunction, which was the government's intention to begin with.”
The large march was the culmination of a week of events organized by the organization Reconciliation Canada to promote the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—a judicial body created as part of a $1.9 billion residential school class action settlement that is traveling across the country collecting thousands of testimonies from among the survivors of the 150,000 students who went to the schools.
The march kicked off with a speech from Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared a lesson from her father: “Human progress is neither automatic, nor inevitable.”
“Even a superficial look at history,” she told the crowd, “reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle.”
Economic empowerment, she said, must be an important part of change for First Nations in Canada if the relationship is to change.
“This is a time for vigorous and positive action,” she said. “This requires leadership action on all fronts in Canada. From political and government, corporate, faith, educational, and community leadership. Because, as I said, we are all in this together.”
University of British Columbia First Nations Studies scholar Glen Coulthard warned that the oppression of Indigenous Peoples continues today, not in a past that ended with the closing of the last residential school in 1996—and that colonialism is alive and well.
“To get over it requires that relationship be changed, or else it'll just be a Band-Aid that never actually heals the wound,” he said. “It's just a temporary solution where Indigenous Peoples can come to grips with the impact that this relationship has on them, but it will never really cure itself, because the relationship hasn't been changed.”
Coulthard, who is Yellowknives Dene, said that although events like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings and Reconciliation Week have significance for many residential school survivors, their promotion by governments indicates that they may not bring the lasting changes that many are seeking. He added that current issues of “colonial dispossession”—including treaty efforts that he said undermine self-determination, as well as controversial oil pipelines over indigenous territories—are an ongoing problem.
To expect survivors of that centuries-old process to forgive and reconcile could be harmful, he argued.
“A lot of people who have been made to feel like it's them that is somehow pathological, because they just can't get rid of these feelings and can't forgive the atrocities of Residential Schools,” he said.
Some activists questioned donations to the TRC events from oil sands pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, which is facing widespread protest in the province. Likewise, Keystone XL pipeline proponent TransCanada is listed as a “bronze sponsor” of Reconciliation Week, despite aboriginal opposition to the project.
“It again distances the federal government and Canadians from the colonial abuses of history,” Coulthard said.