The Current23:09Reconciliation is a 4-letter word for Indigenous communities still facing oppression, says Jody Wilson-Raybould
Reconciliation is a four-letter word for some Indigenous people still living with the inequalities and legacies of colonialism, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says in her new book.
“I talk about in the book, whether my grandmother would ever use the word reconciliation. I don’t think that she would,” said Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai First Nation in B.C.
Her new book True Reconciliation: How to Be a Force for Change was released this week.
Wilson-Raybould told The Current’s Matt Galloway that feelings towards reconciliation today can depend on where Indigenous people are in their own healing journey, or how they experience the lasting impacts of colonialism.
“One doesn’t look to build relationships necessarily with people that have oppressed them, when we still have realities like the Indian Act in existence, for example,” she said.
Enacted in 1876, the Indian Act gives the federal government control over many aspects of the lives of First Nations peoples, including administration of status and governance, and ownership of reserve land.
WATCH | Why reconciliation is a ‘four-letter word’ to some communities
The Act has been amended over the years; the federal government is currently seeking engagement on amendments around issues including enfranchisement and removal of dated references. While but the Act has long been decried as limiting the freedoms and opportunities for the people living under it, formally opting out is far from easy.
“Right now you have to negotiate with other governments, sometimes interminably, or you have to go to court to prove that your rights exist or do not exist,” said Wilson-Raybould.
For transformative change to happen around reconciliation, she wants Canada to “stop denying the rights of Indigenous peoples … and enable them to remove themselves from the Indian Act when they’re ready,” without requiring the federal government’s permission.
‘That colonial racist statute’
Wilson-Raybould was appointed as Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister and attorney general in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet in 2015, but resigned in 2019 amid the SNC-Lavalin affair. She left politics in 2021.
“One of the things that I sought — and fought so hard to do — when I was in government, was to create a mechanism for Indigenous nations to move away from the Indian Act when they’re ready, willing and able,” she said.
She pointed out that recommendations for self-governance were made as far back as 1996, by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Two decades later, Wilson-Raybould wasn’t able to effect those changes during her own time in government for “many reasons, partisanship in particular,” she said.
That leaves many First Nations people “still governed under that colonial racist statute,” Wilson-Raybould said.
There are 25 self-government agreements across Canada, covering 43 Indigenous communities. There are 634 First Nation communities across Canada, with 71.8 per cent of First Nations people holding Registered or Treaty Indian status under the Indian Act, according to the latest census data from Stats Canada. (Inuit and Métis are not governed by the Indian Act.)
Last month, members of Whitecap Dakota voted to become the first self-governing First Nation in Saskatchewan.
While agreements vary from group to group, Wilson-Raybould said those communities have been able to develop their core principles and laws around who their citizens are, and how they elect their leadership. They’ve also increased sources of revenue and reinvested that money directly into their own cultures, languages and communities.
WATCH | Story of Canada has excluded Indigenous voices: Jody Wilson-Raybould
Canada suffers without Indigenous voices
The story of Canada’s creation is the story of the French and English Fathers of Confederation, but not the Indigenous peoples they excluded, Wilson-Raybould said.
“I am proud to be Canadian…. We have great diversity. We’re an unfolding story. And I think that we have great opportunity to improve,” she said.
“[But] if some portion of the population — in this case Indigenous peoples — are left out, then the country suffers,” she said.
That chance for improvement involves developing a shared story of Canada, in which different viewpoints between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are heard and respected, she said.
Doing so demands reconciliation that is not just performative, symbolic or a “one-time thing”, she said. It must be an ongoing process of correcting injustices and “breaking down silos” between people.
“Wearing an orange T-shirt, going to an event and giving a good speech — I mean, these are all important actions that people can take and they should be acknowledged for raising awareness and education purposes,” she said.
“But do they actually lift a child out of poverty? Do they actually reduce the socioeconomic challenges that exist in Indigenous communities?”