LISA HELPS / TIMES COLONIST
SEPTEMBER 2, 2017 12:52 AM
Over my summer holiday, I read Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in Canada.
In this book Paulette Regan, senior adviser at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, argues provocatively that to achieve meaningful, ethical reconciliation with First Nations, settlers must understand and then let go of what she calls the “peacemaker myth.” By this she means that mainstream history — and typical Canadian historical consciousness — views the history and making of Canada as a relatively peaceful process where we didn’t do too much harm to Indigenous peoples, especially compared to our neighbours to the south.
“Without a truth telling in which we confront our own history and identity and make visible how these colonial practices continue today,” she writes, “there can be no ethical or just reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.”
As I was sitting on my back deck, reading this book in the sunshine, North Americans were reeling in the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy. And here closer to home, in a debate started on social media, the question of whether to remove the statue of John A. Macdonald from the front entrance of Victoria city hall was raised once again.
There is no simple answer to this question. But there’s a clear path forward.
The Times Colonist coverage of the issue of MacDonald referred to a “witness reconciliation committee” on which I and two city councillors sit. It’s not exactly a committee. Committees are a settler way of doing business, not an Indigenous way.
As Regan notes, for settlers, reconciliation involves learning to understand Indigenous ways. This means being in diplomatic, political and legal environments that are foreign to us, just as our settler ways were foreign to Indigenous communities when we arrived in their territories.
Together, the city and the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations have created a program reflecting Indigenous family witness ceremonies. The city’s Witness Reconciliation Program brings together Indigenous witnesses from both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations’ councils and a city family.
The Indigenous witnesses are the chief and councillors of the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, who have been chosen by their people as leaders. The witnesses will provide guidance and oversight for the program, coming together two to three times a year in a traditional witness ceremony to hear, reflect, comment and advise, witnessing and guiding how the program moves forward.
The program is meant to be a fluid process — one that is flexible, adaptable and moves us toward true reconciliation.
As part of this process, we need to understand as a council and as a community what role city hall and local settlers played in removing the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations from their lands upon which the city was built. What motions did the council of the day pass and what actions did the city take that assisted in this process and in other processes of colonization? This would be a good master’s thesis topic for a University of Victoria student.
Once we understand the role of the city and local settlers in dispossession and decolonization, we can acknowledge our wrongdoing, provide appropriate restitution and make an apology.
It’s in this deeper context that we’ll be able to have a conversation about Macdonald’s future at the doors of city hall. Given what we’ve come to understand about the role of the city and settlers in colonization, and given what we know about Macdonald’s role in and strong advocacy for the Indian residential school system, is the front door of city hall the right place for him? Does he need to be accompanied, unsettled, by a symbol or statue of Songhees and Esquimalt history?
Whatever actions we take must be ceremonial, not transactional. They must be guided by the Songhees and Esquimalt witnesses. And most importantly, they must be taken in the spirit of reconciliation, which Regan notes, “is not a goal but a place of transformative encounter where all participants gather the courage to face our troubled history without minimizing the damage that has been done, even as we learn new decolonizing ways of working together.”
Lisa Helps is mayor of Victoria.
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