Canada was founded upon a grave injustice: the appalling mistreatment of North American indigenous populations by European settlers, including countless acts of physical and cultural violence.
Days ago, the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released their final report. One part, on page 20 of the summary, seems especially important:
Together, Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives — within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces.
The argument that we bear no moral responsibility for the choices of our ancestors, and that we have no responsibility for systemic patterns of oppression that still exist, is logically and ethically weak. Similarly, the argument that colonization happened so long ago that no recourse is possible or necessary today ultimately perpetuates structures of injustice.
Conversely, the idea that we can to some extent make a sincere and meaningful effort to atone for past and present failings has great appeal. Having dispossessed sophisticated societies of almost all their land and spent decades treating aboriginal people with either cynical viscousness or inhuman contempt, it’s shocking and wrong that a rich state like Canada tolerates the conditions under which too many indigenous people live. There’s no non-aboriginal Canadian community where the question of whether they get drinkable water depends on whether the municipal, provincial, or territorial government is fond of the local mayor, but many aboriginal communities today function under conditions that would spur immediate attention and action for non-aboriginals.
As the first step toward reconciliation, this has to end. Scholars like Taiaiake Alfred are right to question the basic legal and moral validity of the Canadian state, built as it was upon imperialism and conquest. As Alfred explains in Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (2008):
All land claims in Canada, including those at issue in the BC treaty process, arise from the mistaken premise that Canada owns the land it is situated on. In fact, where indigenous people have not surrendered ownership, legal title to “Crown” land does not exist — it is a fiction of Canadian (colonial) law. To assert the validity of Crown title to land that the indigenous population has not surrendered by treaty is to accept the racist assumptions of earlier centuries.
Canada’s aboriginal peoples would probably be justified in pointing to centuries of mistreatment and treaty violations as just cause for settlers to be expelled. But, based on my limited knowledge and experience, that’s not what anyone is asking for. Most indigenous Canadians who I have met want the spirit of the treaties honoured: to share the land, and to live in peace and friendship.
I am acutely aware of how unqualified I am to discuss these matters. In my defence, I am working to develop a base of knowledge for my academic work. In addition to Peter Russell’s Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism, I am currently reading Dwight Newman’s The Duty to Consult: New Relationships with Aboriginal Peoples and the Kino-nda-niimi Collective’s impressive and inspiring volume The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement.