Hollow Words or Reconciliation?

No resolution in sight at the Unist’ot’en blockade, one year later.

“I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting today on the traditional territories of the _______ Nation, who have occupied this Territory since time immemorial.”

Many of us have become familiar with opening words like these at the start of formal meetings or public events. Territorial acknowledgements between Indigenous groups recognizing whose land they are on have existed for many years. Recently we see more non-Indigenous groups using these statements to recognize and honor the local Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of the land. This land acknowledgement is meant to be an act of reconciliation, but is it really more than just hollow words? 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) defines reconciliation as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” How? Through “an awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and actions to change behavior.” 

These principles to address wrong-doing have Christian roots. Matthew 5:23 challenges us to reconcile with our brother before we come to worship. “First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” 

The TRC released its report in June 2015 – almost five years ago. The question now is: how are we doing?

Stolen land and lives
Where I reside as a non-Indigenous immigrant, the land was never ceded and few treaties were signed. Soon after the arrival of settlers to what we know as British Columbia, Indigenous people were systematically stripped of their land through legislation and restricted to smaller and smaller portions of their traditional territories. They were denied access to the abundant fish, wildlife and natural resources, without compensation, leading to profoundly deleterious effects on their health.

Complicit with this was the horror of the Residential Schools, largely run by Christian denominations, with government support, operating from the 1880s until the last school closed in 1996. Many children died of malnutrition. Those who survived told of being subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, often as punishment for using their language, traditions and customs. This has resulted in an intergenerational cycle of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, suicide and profound loss of culture and identity. These social determinants of health have had a profound effect on the lives of Indigenous people in Canada.

The TRC Commission urges us to refuse to accept false concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples. Yet the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia in particular have not resolved issues of Indigenous title to the land, despite the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Aboriginal title in 1997 in the Delgamuukw decision.

The land is life
There is no better illustration of this than what is currently unfolding in our Northern B.C. backyard. The disregard for Indigenous law, title and tradition is happening with the 670-km-long natural gas pipeline development through Wets’uwet’en and Unis’tot’en clan traditional territory. The pipeline threatens 22,000 square kilometres, a rugged and pristine part of Northern B.C. that holds immense value to the Indigenous people who have occupied and used the land for hunting, fishing, trapping and land-based healing. This has led to a highly charged and volatile standoff between gas pipeline workers, their supporters and RCMP on one side and Unis’tot’en people and their supporters on the other, culminating in the arrests of 14 blockaders on January 7, 2019 (see “No Easy Answers,” CC Feb. 11, 2019). One year later, the bulldozers are continuing on their path of forest clearing. 

I have tried to imagine a similar personal analogy, but my cultural upbringing doesn’t connect me to the land in the same way. The closest example is my reaction and stance to a powerful industry or government forcefully tearing through my historic church sanctuary and cemetery, with little regard to my worship, ancestors’ graves, space or life. Yet this is an infantile illustration in comparison to the deep connection Indigenous people have with the land that affects all aspects of their physical and spiritual wellbeing.

I continue to struggle with the question of my duty as a Christian. Are we to take sides with resistance against the police and Government of Canada? Sitting silent does not reconcile us with our neighbour! How we should be engaged is complex and the Bible doesn’t give us scripted answers. Yet I believe we are called to engage in the messiness of our broken and sinful world and to personally examine our role in reconciliation with the original people of this great country, Canada. 

Each time we hear a territorial acknowledgement, we must ask ourselves: “Is this just hollow words or true reconciliation?”

  • Barry has worked as an Optometrist in Northern B.C. for 25 years. He has a passion for making a difference in Indigenous health as he explores his role in reconciliation.

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