Georges Erasmus

This third and final volume in a series of publications dedicated to reconciliation comes as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation prepares to close its doors after nearly one-and-a-half decades of work. Its publication constitutes the literal final word in the AHF’s research agenda, but not the metaphorical final word on the subject of reconciliation. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has for years underscored the message that addressing the historical trauma resulting from Canada’s policy of forced assimilation will require a long-term commitment. This work began before there was an Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and one may reasonably expect the journey of healing and reconciliation to continue when the AHF is no more.

This third volume is populated by the perspectives of new Canadians and those outside the traditional settler communities of British and French. Because Canada is a nation of diverse cultures, its people drawn from every region of the world, any discussion of reconciliation must include the perspectives of those who have arrived in more recent days and those who trace their family histories beyond western European colonial states. The reason for this is simple. Aboriginal people have a unique historical relationship with the Crown, and the Crown represents all Canadians. From this it follows that all Canadians are treaty people, bearing the responsibilities of Crown commitments and enjoying the rights and benefits of being Canadian.

From this simple principle we proceed to much complexity. The subjects of historical wrongdoings and redress, healing, and reconciliation have many localized variants, among them the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and the demolition of Africville in the 1960s, for examples. Those who have arrived in Canada from places of colonization, war, genocide, and devastation will very likely have valuable insights into historical trauma; their perspectives should be considered also.

We hope this approach will draw Canadians of all backgrounds into the reconciliation discussion, on the understanding that they indeed have a unique and necessary place in the circle. Much of the dialogue to date has taken place within Aboriginal communities, among survivors of abuse and their families, both issuing from and bolstering the Main Street idea that the Indian Residential School System is an “Aboriginal issue,” a side discussion on, if not beyond, the margins of Canadian society. Further, this notion is compounded by the reserve system, rooted in Canada’s nineteenth-century conception of “the Indian problem.” In both cases there exists the misassumption that a brief period of reconciliation will allow for a return to business as usual.

It does not have to be that way. However, genuine dialogue requires that Aboriginal people too fulfill their responsibilities. We must listen as well as speak, and actively reach out to others, crossing both the material and notional boundaries that assign Aboriginal people to the margins. This volume takes up that responsibility.

Introducing the larger context is a piece by lead editor Ashok Mathur, who foregrounds the many themes found within the volume as he weaves a personal narrative that traces his own history, immigration, and reflections. The volume itself is divided into three sections: Land, Across, and Transformations. In Land, we begin with Shirley Bear, an artist and activist whose work has been dedicated to improving the quality of life within and across cultures. This poetic back and forth leads the collection from a place of strength, wisdom, and tireless dedication. Following is Henry Tsang’s visual work, an extension of the volume’s cover image (described within), contextualizing the larger sense of land, people, and development in all senses of the word. This takes us to a three-way dialogue between Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Joseph Naytowhow, and b.h. Yael, a compelling articulation of rights and land from Canada through to Israel/Palestine. Another dialogue follows, between Elwood Jimmy and Sandra Semchuk, who address the complex histories of Saskatchewan, complemented by photographic works from Semchuk with her late husband James Nicholas. And staying within the context of land and reconciliation, Dorothy Christian’s article questions how people might come to terms with these complex ideas and ideologies. Picking up on this theme is Rita Wong, whose treatise on water asks us to rethink radically how we have been considering our natural resources. Sylvia Hamilton presents us with a different sense of place, specifically the history and position of Black education in Canada, which she articulates by describing the short film she made to address these hidden histories. And Meera Margaret Singh closes out this section with a visual project that presents contemporary migrants who work the farmland of the Canadian greenbelt.

In Across, we begin with a timeline (somewhat akin to those we published in our earlier two volumes) constructed by Jamelie Hassan and Miriam Jordan to address some of the personal and cultural histories engaging Canada and the Middle East. Renisa Mawani’s article, a reprint from the academic journal, BC Studies, takes a theoretical and historical approach to the context of race and contact on the west coast. Rhose Harris-Galia gives us a personal reflection from a Fillipina perspective from Iqaluit. Sid Chow Tan takes a creative approach to personal history, presenting two pieces that tell the same story of early interactions between Aboriginal and Chinese people in British Columbia and how such hidden histories are possible to re-imagine. Ronald Lee lays out a detailed history of the Roma people whose persecutions bear remarkable resemblance to stories we hear about residential schools. An important reprint follows by Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, whose article on decolonizing the practices of anti-racism interrogates the foundations of progressive movements and how they must be complicated by a serious understanding of Indigenous issues. Robinder Kaur Sehdev revisions how we see the notions of treaty, suggesting that people of colour need to be aware of how they are affected through its discourses. Srimoyee Mitra demonstrates how Aboriginal and South Asian artists have been working and showing together recently to disrupt the notion of “Indian” as well as producing collaborative work that has resonance for contemporary art. Malissa Phung disrupts the assumption that the term “settler” is eschewed by people of colour and asks us to revisit this in all its attendant complications. And Henry Yu describes the recent collective work that has nurtured dialogues among First Nations, urban Aboriginal, and immigrant communities in Vancouver.

The third section, Transformation, begins with Roy Miki, who uses creative practice and poetic moments to reflect upon the Japanese Canadian redress movement. Ravi de Costa and Tom Clark share their interview data about non-Aboriginal attitudes toward reconciliation in Canada. Rinaldo Walcott challenges the very premise of reconciliation and suggests a radical, alternative way of seeing this collective practice as but a beginning in a much more deeply inflected process. Mitch Miyagawa, in a reprint from the magazine, The Walrus, shows through a personal narrative how we have become caught in a web of apology that often amounts to an empty gesture. Jen Budney writes about the art practice of Jayce Salloum, whose work with Aboriginal youth explores activism across local and global arenas. Rita Deverell looks at the more recent media history of race in Canada, following her own trajectory in terms of connections between people of colour and Indigenous people. George Elliott Clarke makes a case for the under-investigated notion of shared histories and ancestries between Blacks and Aboriginal peoples in Nova Scotia. In a visual response, Diyan Achjadi shows how her creative practice accentuates the excessive and challenges the precepts of nationalism and militarism in how they construct our identities. And finally, Kirsten Emiko McAllister thinks through the ways we recognize, and are mis-recognized, as she explores a memoryscape of postwar British Columbia.


Georges Erasmus is a Dene from Yellowknife, NWT. He is a former President of the Indian Brotherhood of Northwest Territories/Dene Nation and the Denendeh Development Corporation, a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, former Co-Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and currently is the President of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and Chief Negotiator for the Dehcho First Nations.

Georges has received multiple honours and awards, among them an Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service, and the Order of Canada (Member, 1987, and Officer, 1999). He has been awarded an honourary Degree of Doctorate of Laws from Queen’s University (1989), University of Toronto (1992), University of Winnipeg (1992), York University (1992), University of British Columbia (1993), Dalhousie University (1997), University of Alberta (1997), University of Western Ontario (2006), and the University of Dundee (2007).

Publications include Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country (Summer Hill Publishers, 1990) and Dialogue on Democracy: The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lectures, 2000–2005 (Penguin, 2006).