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Is Reconciliation Possible? Karen Joseph Has Hope

But we're far from finished the job, says Reconciliation Canada's CEO.

Cara McKenna 27 Nov

Cara McKenna is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver, B.C.

If you asked Karen Joseph several years ago whether she believed reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada was possible, she would have been incredulous.

Like many other indigenous people who have lived through the impacts of colonialism, Joseph was frustrated. Her father, Chief Robert Joseph, survived residential school. Her aunt, Janet Henry, who was just five years her senior, went missing in June 1997, joining a thousand other missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. Joseph herself, who grew up in Campbell River and is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw People, experienced personal and institutional discrimination.

"Where you're facing racism, there are these different levels of abuses that you suffer," she said. "It was pretty hard to be hopeful at some points during my life, for sure."

But in recent years, the now-CEO of Reconciliation Canada, a non-profit that aims to create a more inclusive country, has changed her perspective into one of optimism.

Reconciliation has been a long and often vague process in Canada, with the last residential school closing just 19 years ago. But ongoing processes like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have started to form guidelines on how to move forward.

And at the recent Indigenous City Gathering, an evening event in Vancouver hosted by SFU Public Square's 2015 Community Summit, Joseph spoke passionately about promising changes that give her hope.

For example, in 2013 she watched some 70,000 people walk for reconciliation in Vancouver, a number her father predicted but few believed possible. Then, this fall, her cousin Jody Wilson-Raybould was appointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet, becoming Canada's first aboriginal woman to lead the justice portfolio.

We asked Joseph about what else gives her hope, and reconciliation's next steps. This interview is edited for clarity and style.

Tyee: The massive Truth and Reconciliation events and walk in Vancouver happened two years ago now. Has the city become more inclusive and understanding of aboriginal experience since then?

Karen Joseph: I definitely think that Vancouver is thinking about reconciliation in a different way. The interesting thing about reconciliation is that it really is a personal journey that starts internally, I believe, and then slowly works in through your family and through communities and through society. I think there are certainly a lot of people having serious conversations with themselves and with their families about what reconciliation actually means to them.

Putting that into action in some meaningful way is a longer-term picture, and it takes a lot of thought and dialogue in order to do that. Do I think Vancouver is doing a good job of that? Absolutely. People are having the necessary dialogue, and they're trying to figure out: what does it actually mean to be a city of reconciliation, and how do we implement that?

Can you speak to any concrete examples of how reconciliation is happening, or any recent projects that inspire you?

KJ: The University of Winnipeg senate unanimously supported a motion that requires all students to take a course focused on indigenous rights, traditions, history and government. So anybody at that university will have to take at least one indigenous studies course in order to graduate. They're the first university in the country to do that. I think [that should be put out there] as a challenge for other universities to implement similar motions within their institutions.

The stories of residential schools have been recorded, and now the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations have been made public. What are our next steps, in Vancouver and in Canada as a whole?

KJ: We now have the recommendations of the TRC on which to build some policy and structural frameworks around reconciliation, and I think that we as Canadians need to be engaging in really deep conversations about what reconciliation means to us, and how that impacts the way we treat each other.

My father always says that it doesn't matter how many apologies we get; it doesn't matter how much money is thrown at the issue for restitution or all of these other initiatives. If we as individual peoples can't walk down the street with dignity and be treated with dignity, we haven't actually achieved reconciliation. And that's true whether you're indigenous or whether you're from other backgrounds.

Fundamentally, what we're trying to unite around reconciliation is a recognition of our common humanity and our shared history.

582px version of 2013 Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation
The 2013 Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation drew tens of thousands. Photo: Reconciliation Canada.

On Aug. 27, Reconciliation Canada sent letters to all major federal parties asking what steps they would take to foster understanding about issues such as the ongoing impact of residential schools. Were you satisfied with the responses you received, if any?

KJ: We actually received responses from four out of the five parties, and the responses that we received were very hopeful and positive and committed, and so we were really excited about that. And we were really excited that the party that Canadians eventually elected into government appears to be sincere in its desire to enact some of those promises.

Which party didn't respond?

KJ: The Conservatives didn't respond.

What kind of changes do you hope to see under Canada's new Liberal government?

KJ: I'm really hoping to see a new way of thinking about reconciliation, a new way of bringing together our diverse skills and experiences in creating a new country. A country that's much more reflective of our values as Canadians and much more reflective of where we want to be seen, not just nationally, but on an international scale as well.

What was going through your mind when your cousin (Liberal MP for Vancouver Granville) Jody Wilson-Raybould was appointed to Justin Trudeau's cabinet?

KJ: We made history that day. Canada made history. And the opportunities that we have, the diversity that exists in this cabinet is outstanding. I think we can't go wrong when we start seeing gender parity, when we start seeing that level of diversity in a cabinet, not just through ethnicity but through age and experience and all those things. My honest belief is that the more diversity we have at the table, the more opportunity that we're going to have to create some long-lasting, positive change.

What's next for you and for Reconciliation Canada in general?

KJ: We have some really interesting plans coming up and we'll be slowly rolling those out starting in the next few months. [In Vancouver], we're looking to host a dialogue workshop in January that will be one of the largest workshops that we've had across the country, and that will be our first go-around as we have large dialogues leading through different cities across the country.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

KJ: I'm just really excited that the city decided to host an event like the Indigenous City Gathering [at SFU Woodwards on Nov. 7]. Because I think that speaks to getting that diversity of opinion into where we want to go. And that's really what reconciliation is all about -- it's about respecting that each of us are doing our best in our own way. I think the challenge we face as a country is we've done that separately, and reconciliation is about bringing all of those diverse perspectives together and trying to create something that probably we can't even imagine on our own. As long as we're all living at our highest potential, anything is possible.  [Tyee]

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