Wednesday, November 29, 2023

On reconciliation

A local farmer once told me the story of how his ancestors came to be here. As I remember it, his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was awarded a plot of land after the area was surveyed in the 1830s.
The man set off by foot from Carleton County, now west-end Ottawa, to find the promised plot of land over here in the Pontiac. All he had was a bull. So, he walked for days, bull in tow. Eventually he found the plot, but as he slept that night, his bull wandered off, leaving him with nothing. The next morning, after much bush-whacking, he found his bull drinking from a spring, not on his plot but on a neighbouring one. And so this is where he decided to settle.
The Pontiac is filled with stories like these, of hardworking people who moved here with very little, logged and farmed the land, and built a life for themselves, their families, and the generations that followed. The land offered itself as a resource that made life here possible. It continues to do so.
This weekend we’ll have an opportunity to reconsider these stories, and read a prologue often skimmed or skipped altogether.
Saturday, September 30, is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, or Orange Shirt Day, as it’s come to be known.
It’s a day meant for remembering that for more than one hundred years, the Canadian government took Indigenous children from their homes and cultures and put them in residential schools, schools that were meant to “take the Indian out of the child,” as our first prime minister so honestly defined his ambition.
Some children survived these schools, but as we’ve learned in recent years, many didn’t.
This day is meant to honour all these children and the families from which they were stolen, and recognize the ways this violent theft, and the trauma it left in its wake, continues to ripple through Indigenous communities today.
And the day asks us, non-Indigenous people, to ask ourselves how we are complicit in this violence.
This is a difficult and uncomfortable question to work through.
It’s easy enough to reason ourselves out of being culpable. Pinning this day of national remembering on residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, makes our culpability in all of this somehow more palatable.
There’s a past-ness to it that can work in our favour, even if this violence was perpetrated by monarchs our ancestors swore allegiance to, governments we voted for, paid taxes to, whose laws we obeyed, whose wars we fought, whose leaders we studied and even revered.
We can be sorry for the past, we can wear an orange shirt, but somehow it’s not clear whether or how we should change how we’re living today.
I was born on a farm that borders the Ottawa River. It’s where I learned things like what an oak tree looks like, how to turn grapes into jelly, how to swim, and how to pick the leeches off afterwards. I share this only to make the point that this place means a lot to me. It’s a big part of the story that I tell myself about who I am.
In the days leading up to September 30, I’m reminded that my attachment to and love for this land is made possible because it was first stolen from the people and nations that lived here for thousands of years before Europeans even knew this continent existed.
The entire Ottawa Valley lies within the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. “Unceded’’ means power over the land was never signed over to the Crown through treaty agreement. And yet here we are. Algonquin people certainly don’t have recognized jurisdiction over this land now.
This inaugural theft implicates me. Remembering it challenges the story I tell about who I am.
Two things can be true at once. This is my home, your home, our home. And colonization has made it possible for all of us to say that. Which is to say, we continue to benefit from colonization.
When we’re born into a system of violence that we didn’t create but continue to benefit from, where is our responsibility? How do we make amends? Once we know the truth of our history, how do we reconcile?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had some thoughts on this. They can be found in the 94 calls to action it published in 2015 ( As of December 2022, the government had accomplished seven of them. The creation of this day of national remembering is one of them.
Some say the answer is more straightforward: give the land back.
Maybe no two definitions of reconciliation will be the same.
Merriam-Webster says to reconcile is to restore to friendship or harmony. Friendship is a relationship. It involves being in relation.
Every relationship is different. Every relationship will take work, and listening, and being wrong.
As a people grounded in place, we have work to do to figure out how else we can imagine and tell our stories so that they account for the colonization that made them possible.
Whatever the work is, it will be more than just wearing an orange shirt, or writing an editorial.

Sophie Kuijper Dickson


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