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The evolution of “reconciliation”

Two years after Rye’s Truth and Reconciliation community report, what does the term mean to the Indigenous community?

By Madi Wong and Samreen Maqsood

On Dec. 17, 2019, Eva Jewell published a report for the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson that measured the progress of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) 94 calls to action. They found that only nine were completed. 

Despite the lack of action, Jewell knows that monitoring Canada’s progress is crucial to the country’s reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. She said this moment was an “eye-opener” to what reconciliation means to her. 

“We need to be checking in on it every year and asking, ‘Are we moving forward?’” says Jewell. “I can see why Indigenous peoples are losing faith in reconciliation when we still endure so much injustice and violence.” 

Jewell says Canada must start from scratch. It must build a new relationship with communities to account for the historic damage caused by genocide and ongoing colonial violence. For Jewell, that means seeing a “concerted” effort across Ryerson to support Indigenous learners, staff and faculty through practices like culturally responsible curricula and teaching. 

Jan. 26 marked two years since the release of Ryerson’s TRC Community Consultation Summary report. The report is separate from the government’s 94 calls to action. It was launched by president Mohamed Lachemi, led by vice-president equity and community inclusion Denise O’Neil Green and “supported” by the university’s Aboriginal elder Joanne Dallaire, according to Ryerson’s website. 

All talk and no action”

The report “summarizes [the] community’s aspirations that were voiced” at various talking circles, consultations, events and projects, according to the website.  It is meant to be the “first stage” of Ryerson’s path to reconciliation. The report summarizes “major themes” which emerged from the community consultations, such as developing strategies to “Indigenize” Ryerson and increasing Indigenous staff and faculty, among other themes. 

Ryerson public relations did not confirm to The Eyeopener how many calls to action the university has addressed in time for publication.

In 2017, CBC Edmonton reported that some Indigenous communities have called reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous communities “dead.” 

But many Indigenous students and faculty still have hope that slowly, Canada will mend their broken relationship with Indigenous peoples. However, the concept of “reconciliation” has evolved over time and has come to mean something different from community to community and individual to individual. 

“I don’t feel like reconciliation is dead, but do believe it’s not the Canadian government’s priority to address it,” says Julieann Chapman, a mature Aboriginal knowledges and experiences student, who is Oji-Cree from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug in Northern Ontario.

Ryerson is a unique space for conversations around reconciliation. Jewell says the university “in particular has a responsibility to truth and reconciliation, because it is named after the architect of residential schools.”

In 2017, when the country celebrated its “150th birthday,” many criticized the celebration of the genocide of Indigenous people. That summer, the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) dealt with the controversy of the celebration as well. When a statement on behalf of the RSU was posted to their Facebook page stating their stance and 11 demands in relation to Canada 150, three executives and board members claimed they were unaware of the campaign and were not on board with it. 

Removing the Egerton Ryerson statue was one of the RSU’s demands in the “Colonialism 150” campaign, but it was not approved. However, a year later, a plaque which “contextualized” Egerton Ryerson’s role in creating Canada’s residential school system was placed in front of the statue. 

Chapman says that reconciliation feels like “all talk and no action.”  

“We all come from somewhere and where we come from is important to us and it makes a difference. It’s not enough to talk about us, start talking to us”

Despite some media outlets and online discourse referring to the word as a monolithic concept, Canada’s TRC report defines reconciliation as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” 

To Chapman, the word means acknowledging the injustices Canada has committed against Indigenous peoples and providing resources to assist those healing from trauma.

“Only then can we work towards rebuilding a positive relationship between Indigenous people and Canadian society,” says Chapman.

Another popular form of reconciliatory action is land acknowledgements. Karly Cywink, a third-year media production student, says she has a “love/hate relationship” with land acknowledgements.

“Often, I see [land acknowledgements] as a superficial illusion to give honour and respect for the Indigenous lands and Nations. They’re all written like a script and I believe this takes away the sincerity of them,” says Cywink.

In 2019, Hayden King, director of the Yellowhead Institute, told The Eye he regrets writing Ryerson’s land acknowledgements because they “[obscure] the fact that these treaties are real institutions and not metaphors.”  

To Lynn Lavalleé, strategic lead in Indigenous resurgence in the Faculty of Community Services, “reconciliation” is a buzzword. 

Lavalleé is an Anishinaabek Qwe registered with the Métis Nation of Ontario and her ancestral roots stem from the Anishinaabe and Métis. She says that while people have good intentions using the term, “there is no metric behind it.” 

“How many Indigenous students are graduating from Ryerson University? Let’s publish the attrition of Indigenous students in university.”

Vanessa Nim, a first-year journalism student, has seen several of her professors brush off her culture. A descendant of the Red River Métis, Nim says that this has happened on multiple occasions.

It’s just been evolving and growing as time goes on”

“The amount of times I’ve been in class and have had my people and culture incorrectly described [or] portrayed by profs and students is incredulous,” says Nim in an email. 

Nim hopes students and professors can put in effort to seek knowledge about who Indigenous people are.

“Learn the difference between Canada’s Aboriginal groups, learn about the nations whose land you’re on, stop teaching classes as if no Native kids are in the lecture hall…stop homogenizing us into just Indigenous people.” 

“We all come from somewhere and where we come from is important to us and it makes a difference. It’s not enough to talk about us, start talking to us,” Nim says.

Julie Robertson, a statistics teaching assistant in the geography and sociology department, adds that she can see why people have called reconciliation dead. 

“Federally…nothing has moved forward,” says Robertson. “Nothing is really changing.”

Robertson shares a mixed heritage as a descendant of Chief White Peter of the Seneca tribe in Southwestern Ontario, whose wife was a member of the Six Nations tribe. She is also a 12th-generation Canadian.

She adds there has been change in reconciliation over time because before a couple of years ago, there was no acknowledgement “that there was anything that we needed to reconcile.”

“I wouldn’t say that reconciliation is dead. It’s just been evolving and growing as time goes on,” says Victoria Anderson-Gardner, an Ojibwe filmmaker and activist as well as former RSU vice-president marketing.

In regards to Ryerson’s TRC progress, Anderson-Gardner noted appreciation for Ryerson’s powwow, Indigenous People’s Day and other initiatives, but added that they would like to see the continued process of hiring more Indigenous faculty and staff and “Indigenizing more of the course work.”  

Jewell is one of eight recently hired full-time tenure track Indigenous faculty members.

Ryerson announced in February 2018 that they would be hiring six new Indigenous faculty members following discussion of both Ryerson’s TRC report and the RSU Canada 150 campaign’s demands—one of which was to hire more Indigenous staff. 

Indigenous academia at Ryerson and other post-secondary institutions has also been a part of the reconciliation discourse. But the provincial government has played a role in hindering that goal—in July 2018, the provincial government cancelled curriculum rewriting sessions, which included Indigenous content being worked into Ontario’s curricula.

As for Ryerson, many of the Indigenous courses offered at Ryerson are electives. But according to Jewell, some programs, such as sociology, make it mandatory for their students to take Indigenous courses. 

“Making these courses electives doesn’t really match up with the reconciliation agenda,” says Jewell.

Reconciliation doesn’t have to just mean plaques and land acknowledgements. Anderson-Gardner says with more education come more ways to practice reconciliation.

“I think it’s understanding that it’s not something that’s just going to stay stagnant, it’s a process.” 

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