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‘It’s Always About the Land’

An invitation to journey together towards reconciliation.

When I was a little girl, there were signs in the largest town near my village that said, “No Indians Allowed.” Canada certainly has come a long way since then, but we still have a way to go. I’d like to think we, as Canadians, can walk together on this journey. But before that can happen, we must talk about our first steps.

Why are we having this conversation?

We are talking about reconciliation because residential school survivors decided as a part of their Supreme Court settlement in 2008 that they wanted Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) events across Canada. They courageously wanted Canada to hear and understand their stories and they also wanted reconciliation. Canada did not suddenly decide to do the right thing and make amends with residential school survivors and all Indigenous people. The victims of brutal crimes asked for reconciliation. 

In writing this, I feel like there should be a Biblical selah, those indications to pause in the Psalms, placed here so we take some time and grace to reflect on this.

Is reconciliation possible?

Reconciliation means living in right relationship. It can only happen between two equals. In the past, Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people was more like an overbearing, disgruntled manager taking care of helpless children, especially in terms of the Indian Act. Going forward, we must learn to talk as colleagues.

The best way to show respect is to listen. Since we have lived on this land, now called Canada, together for quite a long time, there is a tendency to say, “Oh yes, we have heard it all before.” But listen again. Listen with your heart wide open because that is the only way you will hear us.

Why do Indigenous land rights matter?

The most important value of Indigenous people is the land. One of my favourite elders, the late Cecile Ketlo, said in 2008 at a Nadleh youth meeting in British Columbia, “It’s about the land. It’s always about the land.” I have felt the truth of those words deep in my heart because I have always loved Nadleh (an area in north central B.C.). My grandpa’s house is right beside the river, looking toward our mountain. I am connected to this land in a way I cannot explain, except that the land has spoken with me my whole life. And I have been listening.

Oral history tells us that Creator placed us on our land and we have been here for as long as anyone can remember. Because my people have been here in Nadleh since time immemorial, then the land, in a scientific sense, is literally made of my ancestors. One day when I cross over to the spirit world, I too will be buried in Nadleh, and the land will do its work. Then I will become a part of the land. From dust we were created and to dust we shall return. This is one of the many reasons we are so driven to watch over and protect this land. We believe it is sacred ground.

Is restitution necessary?

The last step is going to take a few years. Just as there cannot be an apology without a change in behaviour, there cannot be reconciliation without restitution. Restitution means that wrongs acknowledged are made right, and that what was stolen is given back. Restitution is a legal term which describes the act of restoration.

What will it take to restore an entire people group from sea to sea to sea? The Indigenous people of Canada were decimated by disease and traumatized at the loss of entire villages. We were never conquered but overrun by settlers who wrongly promised “free land.” Our land boundaries have shrunk consistently as they were redrawn by governments. These land titles and rights to land are consistently challenged to this day. Reading this article might be an act of reconciliation. But it can’t stop with simply learning about a problem. We must now act. 

What is the goal of reconciliation?

Someone at church once asked me, “Just what do you people want anyway?” Well, first, maybe don’t call us “you people.” We Indigenous people actually expect a lot from Canada, because a lot was taken from us, and a burden was placed on us that we have carried for centuries. We expect Canada will negotiate government to government, ours to theirs. We expect healing of our identity that has been so shattered, mostly by the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. We also expect an end to the persistent cycles of racism in Canadian society.

Our desires are best summarized in the TRC’s Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which were written by Indigenous scholars, lawyers and leaders. Tremendous thought went into those documents and they are worthy of our attention.

Ultimately, we long for a better day for our children and grandchildren. We are not asking for any more than what is rightfully and respectfully ours. Justice is an attribute of our Creator who walked in human form to reconcile God and man, and who will one day make all things right. Our careful steps towards reconciliation together are joining with the heart of our beloved Creator.

Author

  • Cheryl is a speaker, teacher and singer-songwriter from Nadleh Whut’en First Nation. She is also an Associate Professor at Regent College and an Indigenous Relations Specialist with the Canadian Baptist Ministries. A different version of this piece appeared in Faith Today.

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