On September 30, Be an Ally—Not an Actor

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation demands more than wearing orange—it demands real reparations.

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Wait for it.

This week more Canadians than ever will wear an orange shirt in observance of the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a nationally-recognized day that, in the federal government’s words, “honours the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.”

For the first time ever, September 30 will be a federal statutory holiday. And in Newfoundland and Labrador, the province has designated it a government holiday, meaning both federal and provincial workplaces will be closed. Schools, too.

But while thousands in our province sport orange while enjoying the day off, there’s a very real chance—in fact, a certainty—that the meaning of September 30 and its potential as a catalyst for change will be lost beneath the performative façade of expressing solidarity and sympathy with those from whose harm and pain we actively benefit.

We can all wear orange on Thursday. We may even—and should—support an Indigenous organization in the process. Sadly, we won’t go much further than that because, I hesitate to say, we don’t really care enough. 

Reconciliation is an ideal

“No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

It’s the kind of sentiment that evokes a sense of optimism, solidarity, healing, and progress—especially for those who have benefited most from Canada’s “relationship” with Inuit, First Nations and Metis Peoples. It’s also Justin Trudeau’s go-to line when challenged over his government’s track record on Indigenous rights.

Countering the idea that Canada is on a path of healing, or reconciliation, with Indigenous peoples is a growing chorus of those who maintain that reconciliation is dead—or never existed in the first place. It’s an idea, many say, but not a reality reflected in Canada’s resistance to Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings that demand equal treatment and justice for Indigenous kids victimized by the so-called child welfare system. Or in the Canadian government’s continued push to dispossess Indigenous people from their lands and steal resources. Or in all levels of settler governments’ disregard for Indigenous peoples’ pre-existing, inherent and sovereign rights to self-govern, to live on, and to control their own lands and lives—none of which can be separated.

Nor is any reality of reconciliation reflected in Canada’s response to the climate crisis, which is disproportionately impacting Indigenous people here and around the world. Or in the ongoing suicide crises in Indigenous communities. Or in the ongoing “scoop” of Indigenous children from their families and communities. Or in the dramatic overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons. Or in the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. Or in the RCMP’s violent responses to Indigenous people who stand up to colonial violence and reoccupy or otherwise try to protect their lands.

“I’m not sure that you can reconcilie while you’re still harming people,” Ojibwe broadcaster and writer Jesse Wente said last year, citing the RCMP’s armed invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C., the police force’s inadequate response to the violence directed at Mi’kmaw fishers in Nova Scotia, and the Ontario Provincial Police’s violent response to Haudenosaunee land defenders in Six Nations of the Grand River territory. “These are all state actions,” he continued. “How do you reconcile with someone who keeps punching you in the face?”

If repeated punches to the face feels like a harsh metaphor, remember that forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada continues, and that, one year ago, Atikamekw mother Joyce Echaquan was mocked by staff in a Joliette, Que. hospital as she lay dying, and pleading for help, in her bed. 

Still. The idea—or maybe the ideal—of truth and reconciliation is resonating with more Canadians who are eager to overcome the psychological mindf—kery that accompanies a growing realization that their national identity, their pride, their freedom, their privilege—and everything else good that comes with living in a democratic society—began, and continues, with genocide

It’s all about the land

Orange Shirt Day began in 2013 with a Secwepemc woman named Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor from Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation in B.C. Everyone should read Phyllis’ story in her own words

Like so many children, Phyllis and her family were separated. Not for the purposes of education—though that’s what many teachers, administrators, clergy members, police and others told themselves to alleviate their guilt or their complicity in the greater crime. Kids were taken in an effort to eradicate the values, beliefs, languages, and ways of being and of knowing that were central to their identity and being as Indigenous people. 

Today, more Indigenous children are in state care than at the height of the residential schools era.

Don’t let politicians or anyone else lead you to believe that the historical state and systemic violence perpetrated against Indigneous peoples doesn’t continue today. It does, and it’s staring us in the face when we’re willing to look.

As settlers who now occupy these lands—the literal beneficiaries of residential schools and of settler colonialism—we owe it to understand why the church, the state and Canadian society wanted to kill the Indian in the child

It was for one purpose: to steal the land.

It’s a truth that has been repeated to us for years now—for more than a century and a half, to be precise. Through testimony after testimony, and inquiry after inquiry, Indigenous people have re-lived their trauma in order to put it on the record and “prove” it to us. 

Have we really listened? Because it doesn’t really seem like it. More than 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children who were buried at residential schools—in many cases their families never even notified—have been reported in Canadian media in recent months. And searches are underway for thousands more. Yet the collective gasp and outrage seen earlier this year quickly dissipated while we instead chose to listen to political leaders bicker at one another and talk about anything but the growing number of crime scenes across the country.

Truth, then Conciliation

Never mind the argument by folks like Wente, or former U.S. presidential candidate Mark Charles, that reconciliation with Indigneous peoples isn’t logically possible because it implies a previous state of harmony—one that never actually existed. Instead, some say, we should be striving for a state of conciliation.

But we can’t have conciliation without understanding, accepting and addressing the capital-T Truth that is Canadian settler colonialism. And we are not ready for that Truth. We are not willing to give Land Back to Indigenous people.

When you put on an orange shirt on Sept. 30 and repeat slogans like “Every Child Matters” or “Bring Them Home,” remember that your ability to speak those words—your very existence—has been made possible by the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the illegal colonization of their lands.

Metis, Inuit and First Nations people across the country are asking us to wear orange this week. So do it. But accept that you are only scratching the surface of a reality we have ignored for too long.

We need to make reparations and return lands to Indigenous Peoples. It’s the only way conciliation can ever be achieved. Don’t accept arguments that returning what was stolen would be too expensive or costly because it would undermine Canada’s economic interests.

Imagine having your entire economy—and your land, your children, your language, your identity—violently taken from you. Imagine the devastating intergenerational processes and traumas this violence would initiate. 

We don’t need to imagine it. We can listen to those who’ve lived it and are telling us how we can begin making reparations, how we can move toward a state of conciliation.

After all, wearing orange while avoiding the hard work of achieving peace with Indigenous peoples would be un-Canadian, right? Maybe.

Or maybe it’s Canadian as f—k.

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