As Canadians, we are well-used to recognizing “Reconciliation” as a kind of buzzword for the rights of Indigenous and First Nations peoples. I for one have heard the term used in discourses ranging from the political to the geographical, and yet, (I am humbled to admit) I barely have a grasp on what that means for someone like me: a white female living within 23 years of Canada’s last residential school closure.
Sometimes I even find myself wondering how we can begin to reconcile a rift so palpable in everything around us.
Fortunately, there’s an absolute powerhouse of a person making sure that people like me can not only contextualize reconciliation efforts, but also begin to criticize them as they exist in our sociological present.
“Colonialism lives in systems—the systems that drive our economy, our society. It doesn’t matter how many carvings we put up; those are superficial. Until we decolonize the systems that guide how we live, nothing is going to change.”
That’s Jennifer Ward, Educational Developer and PhD student at the University of Alberta. In preparation for February’s Green Drinks Event—centred on Reconciliation in Edmonton—we at the Local Good wanted to talk to an expert on the front lines.
“Thanks for coming,” she smiles, nevertheless giving credence to the elders who have passed along their wisdom; who have given nuance to her own understanding of indigeneity.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer during an Indigenous Worldviews Session, where I immediately felt at home with the no-nonsense way in which she speaks about not only her personal history at Beaver Hills House (Cree: amiskwaciy waskahigan), currently living and teaching on Treaty 6 territory, but also about Canada’s history as a nation built on a pact that has since been soured almost beyond repair.
“Even in larger-scale reconciliation efforts, I have found that the work continues to be on the backs of Indigenous peoples. Our stories are commodified, co-opted by non-indigenous people and sold back to us.”
Suddenly, something I hadn’t quite been able to articulate stands sharply before me, clear as day. Is Canada talking the talk, but not walking the walk? While grassroots efforts are at least opening up the floor for discussion, are people like me really doing enough to change our systems?
“Events and initiatives like Green Drinks are doing good work around informing others about Indigenous perspectives and contemporary realities,” she admits, “but what I think can continue to be done is motivating people to do things that are actionable, such as making changes to policies and political structures that negatively impact the lives of Indigenous peoples.”
“There are lots of dollars around reconciliation at the government level, but at the end of the day, what does that mean? Are we actually supporting Indigenous peoples in healing from the legacy of colonialism?”
In the end, says Jennifer, we must always be willing to check our motivations. We must hold one another accountable for the racial and biased conversations that continue to happen all around us. We must actively pursue Indigenous knowledge from the original knowledge keepers, and then support Indigenous sovereignty by doing more than just lending an ear.
“I would encourage people to educate themselves through reading Indigenous authored texts,” she continues, suddenly excited. Listing some of her favourite Indigenous teaching resources, one in particular catches my attention:
“Oh, the Indigenous People’s Atlas! It’s this incredible set of hardcover maps…they have one the size of a gymnasium for sale that schools are buying like crazy.”
With Jennifer already on her phone trying to find me the link, I can’t help but think: in all of my prairie education, had I ever seen an “unbroken” map of Canada? And what does it say about my own ignorance, me who hadn’t tried to find that map all on my own—who hadn’t even thought to look?
My colleague Rayleigh, in the room with us, makes an offering of tobacco in ceremony of the knowledge that Jennifer has passed along to us. Thanking her again, I can’t help but nevertheless feel warmed walking out into the deep chill of February, my head clearer, my heart calm with the knowledge that even though it’s taken me a while, there are people like Jennifer out there ready to help me learn what reconciliation really means.