The colonial structures and systems that settler societies have built will always pale next to the Indigenous knowledge and lands they are built upon. Despite colonial efforts to assimilate and kill the First Peoples of Turtle Island, their resilience is unfailing. Not only have they survived the colonizers’ best and continued attempts at cultural genocide, but they also have the beauty of Spirit to share with us their wisdom and leadership on the path toward healing.
One such leader is Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, Ambassador for ReconciliationCanada, and Special Advisor to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On September 8, 2016, he spoke at Simon Fraser University on unceded Coast Salish territory as part of the “President’s Dream Colloquium on Returning to the Teachings: Justice, Identity and Belonging.”
“It’s important to remember that we have a collective history that has been very broken. We have to deal with that and come to terms with it, so we can find new ways forward,” explained Chief Joseph, who was one of more then 150,000 Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from their families and put into Canada’s residential school system. “When I was six years old I was taken to residential school and I spent eleven years there. I was moved from an environment of love, caring and nurturing to one of abuse and hopelessness.”
The assault on Aboriginal identity as well as the trauma of the physical and sexual abuse experienced in the residential schools has had devastating generational consequences. The legacy of this can be seen today in the unjust over-representation of First Nations people in both the foster care and criminal justice systems and in the fact that half of First Nations children live in poverty with shorter life expectancy then others, lower secondary school graduation rates and higher TB rates. “It is an indictment on how we have treated Aboriginal people” explains Chief Joseph, “we need to confront this and I think we will, but we have to predicate all of that with the idea that we are embracing each other, because we really care and we want never to leave anyone behind again.”
“Reconciliation is an ancient imperative that has been with humanity for a long time and somehow we have forgotten that” says Chief Joseph who served as a Special Advisor to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which sought to create an accurate and historical record of the past regarding residential schools and which provided former students with the opportunity to share their experiences. “I told survivors, sitting at the table, I want to acknowledge you as very beautiful, strong, resilient people who told your stories, you don’t know it, but you are now part of a process that will remake our country, we are going to transform Canada together.”
“You have to start with your heart to embrace reconciliation. It is the most powerful imperative in the universe to say to yourself and others, we shall live reconciled, it means that we must love each other. The principals of reconciliation always seek peace, always honour balance, always summon harmony and if we lived by those basic principals everyday, I am sure we would do far less harm to each other. Such are the views that have been passed on to us from the ancestors. Reconciliation will mean far less if we don’t act out these imperatives with much love.”
Chief Joseph spoke these words on a day when his own heart was heavy with grief. He had just lost two people close to him and earlier in the day he had been at a ceremony for his nephew who passed away. He was candid about the pain he carried: “How can I speak to people with no joy in my soul? Then I said, I have to be there, whatever else happens, life goes on, children and grand children go on and we have to talk about how we can live reconciled lives. ‘We are one’ is an old idea as ancient as time itself and when our young ones grow with that idea, they grow to respect each other. It must start with our heart and embracing reconciliation as a core value.”
When survivors and descendants of cultural genocide have the resilience and courage to not only survive, but then also show up with compassion to help educate and heal others, settlers and their descendants must match their courage and confront the historical and ongoing oppression from which our colonial societies profit.
Reflecting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, Chief Joseph explained that it was about acknowledging that what people went through was wrong and also people wanting to be responsible for that. “It is about understanding the brokenness that we have among us sometimes and the need to heal that together. Not all of it will be beautiful and easy. Reconciliation is a contested idea and there will be people who don’t like the idea. You have to be courageous, bold and a visionary who is not afraid to go out and do what you can do. It means waking up in the morning and going to bed at night asking yourself, ‘did I live up to that core value of reconciliation?’ You are the ones who can carry this dream forward.”
At the end of his talk, Elders from the Squamish Nation honoured Chief Joseph for his work with a cedar ceremony which is ten thousand years old. The drumbeats and songs of the Squamish Nation filled the room as he was brushed with the sacred cedar boughs and for a moment time stood still. In that moment the wound of colonial violence could not be seen. You could hear the echo of time before that wound occurred, and its beautiful song was calling us all to return.
“We are going through a period of transformative change,” said Chief Joseph, “I see a future that is breathtaking, together we can move forward, continue to make connections and grow the idea that it is time to reconcile.”