Reconciliation Is Not a Gift. It’s a New Beginning

This piece originally appeared on the Toronto Star

“What does reconciliation mean to you?”

I asked that question of Miles Richardson, a Haida leader, former chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission and a close friend since we started serving together on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation in 2001. I had recently come from a workshop discussion where I had earned criticism from an Indigenous leader for conflating reconciliation with forgiveness.

So, I was looking for an understanding of reconciliation that was deeper and more nuanced than the dictionary definition: “the restoration of friendly relations.”

I can’t remember if Miles harrumphed but he didn’t answer. I wasn’t even sure if he had heard me, and we were soon discussing something else. But a couple of days later, we were talking again and he said, “Jim, I’ve been thinking about the question that you asked me.” And even as I was wondering, “What question?” Miles said, “ … about reconciliation.”

He went on: “If you can see me as I see myself, and I can see you as you see yourself, that is the beginning of a healthy relationship. And I’d like to see where a healthy relationship would take us.”

Two things struck me about this response. First, I was honoured — though, in hindsight, not surprised — that Miles had taken time to consider my question. It reminded me why we are friends; he is thoughtful, as well as wise. More important, though, was the answer itself. Miles wasn’t trying to persuade me to agree with him. He was calling for mutual respect and empathy. He was trying to open up space for a higher quality conversation.

This, in terms of the faltering processes of reconciliation unfolding in Canada today, gets to a critical point.

Reconciliation is not something you pick off the shelf. It’s not a gift that one powerful party can offer another. It is the product of a trusting relationship. It doesn’t require agreement — so much is yet to be negotiated — but it demands a degree of understanding. And that foundation of trust and acceptance — of mutual respect — is not, in itself, the happy end point; it is a first, essential step in creating the space in which reconciliation may emerge.

That gets to one of the biggest problems we now face. Too many people today are stressing and obsessing about all the ways the reconciliation project might ultimately go awry.

As Miles has said, reconciliation is not about coming to a final verdict: it’s about respect. It’s about having integrity as a Canadian and a human. It is, again, about seeing the other as they see themselves, and, critically, about being who you say you are.

The final accounting — the resolution of rights and title — will take years to unravel, even once the journey to reconciliation is well under way. But this first step demands an unprecedented degree of openness.

For example, Miles says, “I also have the view that my people are sovereign over Haida Gwaii. If you hope to understand me, you better understand that.” He’s not demanding that you accede — even if he’s quick to point out that his title is well defined in Canadian law. But, he says, “Reconciliation entails respect, whether you agree or not.”

So, the task now is to find the courage and integrity to take a first step — not to fear that, by reaching out, we might sacrifice a long-term negotiating position or “give away” something that was built on denial of the basic humanity of our Indigenous neighbours — only that we seek a foundation of understanding.

In Miles’s words: “We’re agreed that we’re all here to stay.” Wouldn’t it be better, for the social, economic and environmental security of all parties, to begin the next 150 years with the mutual respect that enables us to see where a healthy relationship takes us?

James Hoggan is the past Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation Board and author of the book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up.

Image: Healing Walk 2014. Photo: Zack Embree

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