This is the 4th article of our 4-part series on Indigenous cultures and issues in Canada. You can also read about an introduction to Indigenous cultures in Canada, about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and about Residential Schools and their legacy.
Written by: Leslie Anne St Amour, a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation
There’s a lot that you’ll need to learn about Indigenous history as a newcomer to Canada. While it is by no means easy, it is essential that we, as a society, repair the harms that have been caused to the original inhabitants of this land we call Canada. Newcomers to Canada should understand the history of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous culture, and the reality of Indigenous people today.
In earlier articles, we’ve covered the impact of colonization and residential schools on Indigenous peoples in Canada, to provide you with some of the basics and resources for further learning. In this article, we’ll talk about what reconciliation is and why it should matter to every resident of the country, including newcomers.
What does reconciliation really mean?
In many ways, reconciliation has become a buzzword rather than something with real meaning. But that can’t be allowed to take away from the importance of the intention behind the word.
Reconciliation, in the context of Indigenous peoples, means the idea of Canadian colonial culture and Indigenous cultures finding a way to coexist with equality and respect. We want to find ways where our communities can grow together and create a society in which we can all live a good life.
Why should newcomers care about reconciliation?
Well, there are a few reasons. First, it’s ethically the fair thing to do. And there are economic benefits for Canada, which newcomers, as residents of Canada, could benefit from.
The ethical thing to do
Indigenous peoples had built thriving societies in Canada, which were disrupted, and in some cases destroyed, by settlers, through greed and racist policies. Settlers viewed Indigenous peoples as inferior because they didn’t manage their land the way Europeans did, and because of this, they thought that Indigenous land was freely available for exploitation. Ever since, ongoing discrimination has allowed for the benefits of access to the land and its natural resources to flow to Canadian settlers. Settlers have also historically benefited from the inequitable access to government services, including greater resource allocation to non-Indigenous communities. Correcting this unfair reality is part of reconciliation and is the right thing to do from the perspective of fairness and parity.
Economic and environmental benefits
Reconciliation can also help Canada grow and realize economic benefits. Moving forward, environmental protection will be crucial to Canada’s resilience in a changing climate. Research shows that efforts towards environmental conservation in Canada will be more effective with Indigenous-led governance, knowledge and support. By working hand in hand with Indigenous communities to protect Canada’s natural environment, the government stands to gain a better understanding of the impact of climate change and can plan ecological conservation initiatives that are much more effective.
The government and judiciary system may also see savings as a result of fewer court cases and litigations. There will be fewer legal fights over land use, developments, and treaty interpretation when reconciliation allows for Indigenous peoples to have a say in how to govern their own lands.
Lastly, when Indigenous peoples can provide culturally-appropriate services to their own communities, it results in better outcomes. This will save money on prisons and healthcare, with preventative actions being taken for the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples.
Fighting discrimination together
We still see discrimination today in the way Indigenous peoples are treated in Canada. One example is the Grassy Narrows First Nation, where a paper mill was allowed to contaminate an Indigenous community downstream for years, with the community facing the lasting impacts of mercury poisoning today. The community has been fighting with the government for years to get the support needed to improve the health of their community.
Another example is the way Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamkw woman, was mistreated and denied treatment by healthcare workers due to being Indigenous, to the point where she died. Or Brian Sinclair, who was also ignored and left untreated for over 34 hours in a hospital, and also died. Or Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter who were handcuffed after trying to open a bank account, due to racist assumptions about fraud.
It doesn’t have to be like this though. Newcomers and Canadians alike can learn about Indigenous peoples, their culture, and their reality, and to fight discrimination and inequality where they see it.
Role of newcomers in reconciliation
You can also support Indigenous peoples and communities by buying from them, whether it be coffee, jewellery, clothing, make up or more. It’s important to remember that buying Indigenous products isn’t cultural appropriation, however buying look-alike products not made by Indigenous peoples can be, and can harm Indigenous peoples by preventing them from benefiting from their own designs and culture.
In addition, please make sure you aren’t accidentally contributing to stereotyping. Focus on including Indigenous influences in your life and learning from Indigenous peoples, without trying to replicate being Indigenous. Unfortunately, many representations of Indigenous peoples in popular culture are inaccurate and harmful. Continuing to use and rely on these inaccurate representations prevents true Indigenous stories from being heard. Remember that Indigenous symbols and traditional outfits are not a costume, and should not be worn for fun on occasions such as Halloween.
And lastly, when considering making decisions in your communities, whether it be voting in an election, discussing a charity for a school fundraiser, or helping select books for a community library, you should consider the many perspectives which make Canada the diverse country that it is and take these opportunities to support reconciliation and help advocate for Indigenous peoples.
About the author: Leslie Anne St Amour is a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation and has mixed Algonquin and settler heritage. She is a lawyer with Durant Barristers and a member of the Board of Directors of Aboriginal Legal Services and the Board of Directors of the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station. Leslie Anne is also co-host of the podcast Rebalancing Act which focuses on climate solutions.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect RBC’s opinion or position.
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