William Julius Mussell

For the spirit of reconciliation to be meaningful for Canada’s First Nations,1 two prerequisites must be met: an understanding and acknowledgement of past injustices, and a commitment to a relationship of mutual respect and equity on the part of the majority of Canadians. In this paper, my intent is to contribute to a better understanding of historical legacies and their implications for reconciliation. If the effects of the past on the present are not addressed, we risk perpetuating the status quo which, for many First Nations in this country, is untenable.

I begin by revealing major features of Canada’s history that demonstrate treatment unfit for humankind, concealed by church and state for decades. This will be followed by my father’s story about his experience in a residential school and what I learned about the influence of culture, family, and community history on health and wellness. I will then draw from what I discovered as a university credentialed social worker and educator of Sto:lo heritage doing capacity-building work in First Nations communities. Finally, I offer suggestions about what could serve as the foundation for conciliation and reconciliation so that true respect prevails in the relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

What is Meant by “Reconciliation”?

Reconciliation speaks to “the end of a disagreement and the return to friendly relations.”2 The establishment or re-establishment of friendly relations requires both parties to recognize the discordance inherent in the relationship that is to be reconciled and to move from enmity to goodwill. This recognition must occur on every level—personal, community, and systemic. Even though the injustices happened and were institutionalized on a national level through the imposition of systems, philosophies, cultures, and religions of colonial governments, individuals along with governments must acknowledge truths about the past relationship between First Peoples and colonizers, recognize how the destructive effects of that relationship continue into the present, and work together with First Nations to forge a new relationship of peace and goodwill.

There are opposing views about what took place historically and these must be confronted and reconciled before relationships between individuals or nations can be harmonized. Reconciled relationships are those of equality, in which each party is considered of equal worth and makes every effort to understand the point of view of the other. With mutual understanding comes a changed attitude in health, social, economic, and political conditions. Without this understanding, there is little motivation for other necessary changes.

There are increasing numbers of First Nations communities that are now dealing with the impact of the past and its legacies in the present. The majority of Canadians lag much further behind in their understanding. It is imperative that all Canadians recognize, understand, and be willing to remove forces that continue to maintain the colonial practices perpetuating the second-class status of Indigenous people. A critical analysis of philosophies, systems, and institutions, and their policies and programs, is a precondition for the eradication of the roots of oppression. Such an analysis will reveal inequities between what is provided and how it is provided to mainstream Canadians compared with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.

If reconciliation is to work, restoration of Indigenous languages, cultures, social structures, and traditional institutions for governance must occur. Restoration is “the returning of something to a former condition, place or owner; the restoring of a previous practice, right or situation.”3 Only when all Canadians agree on the validity of Indigenous ways of knowing and doing as a basis for the rebuilding of First Nations’ self-reliance, self-governance, and wellness can such work be accomplished. Ideally, restoration will begin with the acknowledgement that, historically, colonizers to this continent had committed an injustice by failing to respect the Indigenous people as fully human and deserving of their respect. It will require recognition that the dysfunctions with which too many First Nations live are outcomes of historical forces, not signs of inherent flaws in individuals, families, or communities. Finally, it will involve strategies at all levels of society that support the healing of individual and societal wounds, the growing autonomy of First Nations, and reconciliation.

The current compensation being paid to Survivors of Indian residential schools may appear to most Canadians as enough to right past wrongs. I see it as a limited attempt to make amends that does not address the vital issue of the ongoing inequalities between First Nations and the rest of Canada. These inequalities have their roots in grievous injuries to Canada’s First Peoples, their cultures, and their communities by those colonizing forces.

Historical Context

Before contact with Europeans, First Nations people enjoyed relatively good health and knew cures for many illnesses. Traditional wisdom and knowledge of the land and how the land supported the community were essential foundations for Indigenous health and well-being.

In Western Canada, the colonization process began to affect the lives of Indigenous people about one hundred and fifty years ago.4 Colonizers brought with them infectious diseases that significantly decimated Indigenous populations. These massive losses of life were followed by the implementation of the reserve system, a policy that significantly reduced the land base. With access to traditional lands and resources seriously constricted, dependence on government increased. The pervasive loss of land had the most devastating consequences in terms of disrupting traditional roles and lifestyles in families and communities. Loss of the land base meant loss of the foundation for traditional social, economic, and cultural institutions and the ways of life that made these possible. The result was a decline in self-sufficiency, an altered, less active lifestyle, poor nutritional habits, and the advent of modern diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular problems. By the mid-twentieth century, colonization had caused devastation in all aspects of First Nations life—social, intellectual, spiritual, and physical. Other colonization strategies included the removal of children to residential schools that operated as institutions much like prisons, a practice that continued for four and sometimes five consecutive generations of families.

Beginning in 1861 and as recently as the 1980s, Indigenous children were trained in these schools, often long distances from their home communities, where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or to practise their cultural ways. The residential school experiences profoundly altered family units at the time and continue to have serious intergenerational effects, touching every aspect of community life today. These effects (violence and abuse, physical illnesses, addictions, depression, and suicide) are only beginning to be understood as symptoms of severe stress that compound the burden of earlier unresolved losses connected with the loss of the land. Losing the land meant losing the traditional knowledge and cultural practices based on a lifestyle inextricably tied to the land.

Residential school abuse has been a topic of discussion in some First Nations for about three decades, in others for much longer. Few First Nations people took the risk of talking about the abuse they suffered at the hands of residential school staff, and only with carefully selected people. Most chose not to risk the stigma connected with acknowledging the abuse, especially sexual abuse.

As the number of residential schools was being reduced beginning in the 1960s, most children were staying with family year-round, and more and more of them were being apprehended by the child welfare authorities. While Aboriginal children were “out of sight” in the residential schools, their safety and wellness were not mainstream priorities. As soon as children began living in their home communities year-round, non-Aboriginal social workers justified removing them to foster care by imposing their middle-class standards of care and finding Aboriginal families deficient. Workers had little knowledge of traditional child-rearing practises nor were they familiar with one of the most pervasive legacies of the residential school system—the fact that the children raised in institutions, in spite of the gifts and potential they were born with, were deprived of opportunities to learn how to nurture and care for others. Workers did not take into consideration that there were no parenting models for many parents who were raised in residential schools.

The assumption of responsibility for the care and support of school-age children and youth represented a major change in lifestyle for families and communities. Most families in my home village lived for three or so generations without having direct responsibility for school-age children and youth. This fact surfaced during discussion in the mid-1970s at a chief and council meeting about vandalism of houses in the village. The chief and council could not remember ever having such damage done in the past. They concluded that this was the case because, until recently, most young people were at residential school, not living year-round at home. It turned out that three male youths were responsible and that their parents were baffled by their unacceptable behaviour and said they did not know how to discipline them.5

My Father’s Story

In some First Nations there were families who managed to keep their children at home, especially in the larger villages where a day school was available. I share my father’s story because he was brought to residential school with his sister and brother against their parents’ wishes. While he spent only a short time at residential school, as a nine-year-old in his first year at the school, he was sexually abused by a nun.6 This experience appears to have shaped his belief that women were motivated by sex and therefore prone to be disloyal. In later years this led to physical abuse of his wife, my mother.

My father was the first-born son raised by strong women in a relatively healthy extended family that valued learning, making a living, and community togetherness. There were many other families in the first few decades of the twentieth century that had the wherewithal to do as my paternal ancestors did: they transmitted to their children what they knew, valued, and believed while attending to their safety and wellness. Such families were very capable of raising healthy and productive children.

I first learned of sexual abuse in the residential school from my parents. In 1921, the Northwest Mounted Police took my father, as well as his older sister and younger brother, from their family home on the reserve to the residential school. Dad could speak Halq’emeylem and English and knew how to read and write, thanks to his mother’s knowledge, skills, and foresight.

Within the same year, he was approached by the priest, who wanted to know what he wished to become. He said he wanted to become a priest because so many people in his village were dying in spite of the medicine they received from the doctor. He talked about the piles of medicine bottles under the houses and how these did not seem to prevent death. The priest, Dad recalled, asked him if his parents had money. He said they did not but his grandmother was rich. “If she gives me ten thousand dollars, I will make you a priest,” he promised. Dad said he understood from his study of the Bible that money does not make a priest, and he declined the proposition. The priest asked him to leave the school. He returned home with his brother and sister, and within a short time they were escorted by the police to another residential school.

The second school was located much closer to home and had a farming operation equipped with student manpower. Dad described how he was placed in a residence with the nine-year-olds and situated in a job with the big boys who did the harder work at the school. While he enjoyed the hard work, Dad complained about how poorly the nine-years-olds were fed and insisted he needed much better food if he was to continue to work with the older boys. This led to his being expelled from the school and, once again, he found his way home within only a few months of admission. While his formal “education” ended at this stage, he continued to learn skills that prepared him for a productive working life, thanks to the values and modelling of his caregivers who worked hard, provided well, and actively contributed to community life.

As the eldest son, my father was expected to become the breadwinner should his father be unable to continue in this role. My father took pride in serving in this way, and he continued to do so even after marrying and having six children. My parents built their own home in the late 1930s, using recycled materials wherever possible, and they developed a dairy herd as part of a mixed farming operation. They introduced their children to the world of work by inviting us to help them out. As knowledge was acquired and skills developed, new challenges were presented. Time and time again we learned that success begets success. We were involved in a wide range of activities, including hunting, canoeing, and fishing. We participated in community celebrations and ceremonies. We learned about the land and how the land supported the family and the community. Consequently, when school attendance was added to our lives, we already possessed many valued competencies.

Our parents refused to permit us to attend residential school, even day school on the reserve. Public school was their first choice despite the fact that we were not eligible to attend because we were Indians who lived on a reserve claimed by the Catholic Church and were not taxpayers to the local municipality. The priest serving our community worked hard to get us into a Catholic school, and he was critical of my parents’ plan to send us to public school; in fact, he lobbied for support from community members to force my parents to change their plans. Thanks to the advocacy and negotiations Mother undertook with the local school board, we were able to attend a public school, although Mom and Dad paid monthly tuition fees for each child for five years before the Department of Indian Affairs agreed to pay. We learned that we were very special because of all the attention, and Mother helped us to make sense of racism, inequity, and aspects of history that were disempowering. She helped us to understand fairness and justice and asked that we inform her of anything that resembled racial prejudice. She wanted to spare us the negative effects of institutionalization that were so evident in the lives of those who had experienced residential schooling.

This glimpse into my family’s story reveals the protective value of good cultural ways of parenting in the face of the damaging historical forces previously described. With help of her eldest sons, and intervention by an uncle, my Mother escaped physical violence after fourteen years of marriage. The six children became responsible citizens, married, and raised healthy children. Traditionally, extended families and communities survived and progressed by practising values of co-reliance and sharing through ceremonies, celebrations, and working together for the well-being of the whole. Living one’s culture fosters a secure personal and cultural identity that serves as a foundation for resiliently coping with life’s challenges. It provides a sense of cultural continuity wherein the child’s first teachers are members of the family, extended family, and community. In later life, this secure cultural grounding provides the confidence to learn about other cultures and accept and respect the diversity of other practices. These are key elements of responsible citizenry in a diverse country like Canada.

Dehumanization of First Peoples

My family’s experience of the residential school system was shorter and less dramatic than that of many other First Nations families. From the initial shock of being picked up without warning on the reserve, sometimes by a cattle truck, and delivered to the residential school, many children were subjected to such radical changes as to challenge their very identities. At residential school, they were forced to (a) assume a new image—have a haircut, take a shower, wear strange clothes; (b) speak a foreign language—with punishments for speaking the language learned ‘at home;’ (c) live in isolation from brothers, sisters, parents, and other family members; (d) eat strange food, and eat in quantities small enough to experience starvation; and, for many, (e) suffer physical abuse—in the form of punishment in and out of class for perceived misbehaviour—and, sometimes, sexual abuse. Training in this dehumanizing environment continued for up to nine and ten consecutive years, or longer, for many boys and girls. No wonder we have few people in our communities who have voice and vision, who question, wonder out loud, or express a point of view on matters of personal and social importance. No wonder many family members show evidence of attachment difficulties and distrust, and so many, especially males,7 have difficulty asking for help, reaching out, and exploring the world.

The profound losses experienced by First Nations, from generation to generation, have affected personal and cultural identity and quality of family and community life. These losses have created a chasm between Canadians in general and First Nation individuals who, for the most part, live as strangers in this large, bountiful country. Consider the following impacts of these losses on individual, family, and community life:

  1. Loss of cultural territory, land, resources, and sacred places that were taken and trampled upon.

  2. Loss of life8 due to foreign diseases to which the people had no resistance, resulting in disabled family systems because so many members died and their knowledge was lost with them. Self-sustaining units were wiped out. Survivors often starved. There are stories of caregivers arriving by canoe and begging the residential school officials to take their children so at least they would have a place to live and some food.9

  3. Loss of co-reliance and self-sufficiency as extended family units, and entrenchment of dependency through institutionalization and its effects; for example, setting aside reserves, relying on Indian residential schools, setting up bureaucracies to manage “Indians and Lands reserved for Indians,” continuing isolation of Indigenous children in the public school systems, and fostering helplessness through misguided and inappropriate health, social, and education programs.

  4. Loss of language and traditional learning strategies such as storytelling and being mentored by a caregiver during the course of everyday life.

  5. Loss of tools and opportunities to become self-determining and co-reliant. Through unconditional inclusion and acceptance as full family members from birth to adolescence, children learn the vernacular and the cultural teachings of their family. Once learned, these become the springboard for learning other cultures and languages. The deprivation of such experiences creates serious negative consequences for holistic growth and development and sets people up for failure and insularity.

  6. Loss of interpersonal connectedness between caregiver and child, caregiver and caregiver, and family and family due largely to the absence of rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations that contribute to the building of trusting relationships with self and others.

Imbalances in our lives as First Nations people are real and can be understood as the effects of colonizing forces. As listed above, those deprived of tools and knowledge have difficulty creating quality of life. Critical to this deprivation is the absence of nurturing relationships with other people. The Medicine Wheel10 opposite highlights physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs as essentials for holistic, balanced growth and development.

Life in the residential schools is described as seriously lacking in opportunities to grow emotionally and spiritually and because of this, success in learning and holistic growth was unattainable for most young people. Just as nutritious food is a necessity for physical growth, so does a nurturing relationship serve as the vehicle for development of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

Dependency as a way of life becomes understood because of the depth and scope of deprivation suffered first in residential school and perpetuated thereafter by many of its “graduates.” In some communities, four and five consecutive generations attended residential school, and the habits learned there served as templates for succeeding generations.

Institutionalized learning at the residential school meshed well with the kind of institutionalization being introduced and learned by people living on the reserves administered by the Department of Indian Affairs. The treatment of First Nations as wards of the government throughout modern history persists into the present. Many programs and services remind us of the fact that we continue to be seen and treated as wards in spite of protestations to the contrary. Are poverty and inadequate living conditions not the logical outcomes of intergenerational institutionalization that perpetuates learned helplessness? As people who have not experienced empowerment by discovering who we are, what we are, and who we belong to through learning family and community history as an everyday experience, we live with considerable uncertainty because we lack what it takes to see, understand, and name our internal and external realities. As Indigenous people, we are relatively powerless to deal with threats perpetuated by the process of colonization, such as institutionalization and environmental contamination.

We learned distrust of government from family and community, which continues to influence our feelings, thoughts, and actions on government-Indian matters. The ignorance of would-be allies perpetuates this distrust. In my mind’s eye, I can see the three young non-Aboriginal lawyers presiding at a hearing11 held to receive evidence from a former residential school “graduate,” age fifty-one, to determine whether he, in fact, suffered sexual abuse. The quasi-legal process they employed was inappropriate and showed little familiarity with the context of Indian-White relations, trauma and its effects, and contemporary First Nations family and community life. It did little to dispel suspicion of professionals, even those wishing to be allies of First Nations.

A further obstacle to reconciliation is the phenomenon of passive acceptance by First Nations of what the government offers, as well as the absence of voice that contributes to silence in the face of injustice. What chance do those caught in passivity and silence have of engaging in the current dialogue on residential schools? And how will the contribution of those who do have their voice foster reconciliation in Canada if there are few listeners?

The colonized society as a whole is made to think of itself as entirely alone in the universe—completely vulnerable and unprotected. At the individual level, colonized people learn to hide their real feelings and sincere beliefs because they have been taught that these are evidence of ignorance and barbarity. From this loneliness comes a lack of self-confidence, a fear of action, and a tendency to believe that the ravages and pain of colonization are somehow deserved. Some blame themselves for all the pain that they have suffered.12

The greatest challenge in the process of reconciliation may be in achieving fundamental changes in the thinking and belief systems of both colonizers and the colonized. The first step in successfully addressing this challenge is to recognize the dynamics and effects of this country’s history of colonization on both parties. Reconciliation will be attainable only by decolonizing the thinking of First Nations and all Canadians. First Nations are the leaders in this process as they reclaim their autonomy and emerge as whole people concerned about creating communities-of-care, wherein all members attend to each other’s safety, security, and well-being and honour personal and communal gifts of the Creator.

Racism has at its core an absence of belief in the worth and capabilities of those who are its target. This attitude?becomes institutionalized in many systems where it operates mostly “out of sight.” The public education system that most First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and youth attend offers curricula anchored in the Western world view and its ways of knowing. Because this approach and strategy has been problematic for most Aboriginal learners, and although their advocates have succeeded in modifying service delivery in many places, many of the same problems continue. Efforts to acknowledge the learners’ cultures and build upon them have not included formal recognition of Indigenous knowledge as legitimate curriculum content and a reliable source for shaping the teaching and learning strategies. Until this is done, roots of racism will continue to thrive.

There is a growing movement to indigenize post-secondary education institutions. The goal is to improve the quality and relevance of education for Indigenous learners by grounding it in cultural knowledge and traditions. Indigenous learners are better equipped to provide leadership in both Aboriginal and mainstream communities if they obtain an education based on their own heritage, cultural knowledge, and history. They can become key change agents in bringing about true reconciliation. Fully accredited practitioners anchored in their own culture and traditions are essential to addressing the legacies of the past and to leading initiatives in family restoration, economic self-sufficiency, human and social development, governance, health, and education.

Mainstream programs prepare our people to work in mainstream contexts. If Aboriginal people choose to work with their own people, they must struggle to adapt what they have learned in order to offer effective service because of the differences in mainstream and Aboriginal values, world views, practices, and living conditions. The indigenization of a program would be reflected in the curriculum content, the methodologies used for implementation, the physical learning environment, and the strategies to bring together Indigenous and Western paradigms and practices. As educational opportunities build upon Indigenous knowledge, ways of knowing, and values, promising practices increase and make a positive difference in our lives. We empower ourselves to recognize exclusion, isolation, and racism and to find voice, vision, and ways to create a positive future.

De-Colonizing Education

In 1988, together with two colleagues and volunteer board members, I established Sal’i’shan as a cultural-based post-secondary institute dedicated to the education and training of community health workers and addictions counsellors. At that time, there was no systematic, culturally relevant educational preparation for on-reserve workers in the province of British Columbia. Development of the curriculum and its delivery was guided by the teachings of Paulo Freire,13 a Brazilian who developed ways for oppressed people to learn about how to learn and, through this, how to empower themselves. Freire’s work showed me that the learners needed to understand the realities they were addressing from the perspective of the bigger historical picture of government-Indian relations, a process of imposed change resulting in continual dehumanization since the time of contact. Freire’s model of dialogue and anti-dialogue provided the framework for understanding the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Dialogue or a healthy relationship is characterized by two or more people interacting at the same level and sharing information in mutually respectful and helpful ways. They communicate and, together, make meaning of the topic under consideration. Verbal and non-verbal messaging is equally important to the process. Effective mediation of learning is based upon such sharing of information.

Anti-dialogue does not support genuine communication or meaningful healthy interaction. It is characterized by two or more people interacting at different levels. The person at the highest level poses as an expert and takes it upon himself or herself to direct others, to tell them what to do, and so on. People in this position maintain a distance from the learners and have a need to conceal their real self; they do not want others to get to know them as whole people. At the extreme, they do not like to be asked questions or to share any kind of information voluntarily. They are easily threatened, especially by someone who expects to be respected and heard, knows his or her human rights, values moral and ethical ways, and is well regarded in the community. Their choice of partners, employees, and friends are people who will follow their lead, rather than question or disobey.

I began to apply my understanding of Freire’s teachings after studying with him at the University of British Columbia and in Brazil in 1984–85, and have done this work primarily with First Nations workers, leaders, and community members via programs and courses offered mostly by the Sal’i’shan Institute. I have found that First Nations community members, elected leaders, workers, and volunteers alike have no difficulty identifying with the oppressed and can relate their understanding of the concept to Indian-government relations and to teacher-student, employer-employee, and parent-child dualities. They also connect easily with reasons why the oppressed choose to depend or rely upon the oppressor. They can understand the risks involved when the oppressed decide to break free from the dependence and the apparent safety and security of such a relationship. They also begin to make sense of why some people become oppressors in our families and communities.

When learners recognize that oppressors in their midst most likely had started out living life as oppressed people and have shifted to their dominant role from the lesser one, they begin to see themselves as possessing the same capability. They point out that such a person will assume the role of the oppressed with some people while behaving as the oppressor with others. They recognize that this behaviour describes most of their experiences with the Canadian public—in the store, the government office, the classroom, the doctor’s office, and so on, and sometimes in the homes and offices of their own people. As students become able to identify the oppressive use of legal and bureaucratic constraints within their own communities and in the wider society, and at national levels, they can then develop strategies for making change in their own lives and in other social systems.

It is the recognition and understanding of these dynamics that makes it possible for persons to change if they so choose. They become able to live life as healthy, effective, nurturing persons instead of as victims. Growth and development of this kind is facilitated by active support from those who possess confidence, social skills, and a relatively secure personal and cultural identity. Guided teaching and learning informed by knowledge of traditional teachings connected with core values, beliefs, and practices promote understanding and appreciation of the downsides of functioning as an oppressor and the blessings and benefits of living life as a person respectful of self and others.

Paulo Freire devoted his life to helping people discover their personal power to make meaning by becoming critical thinkers, making their own history, and thus knowing freedom and inner peace. He wrote about the banking concept of education, the process of schooling wherein teachers work to “fill empty heads” with the prescribed information, rather than focusing on a process of learning that is empowering for all—the learner as well as the teacher or mediator. Such a learning process is one that validates and builds on the life experiences and cultures of the learners. Unfortunately, the dominant pedagogy throughout mainstream schooling remains.

Survivors of residential school tell many stories about being strapped, being called derogatory names, and being punished for failing to measure up to expectations. As the residential schools faded into history and more and more First Nations children entered other schools, effects of oppressive pedagogical practices continued. Too many teachers perceived the First Nations child as “less than,” incapable, and not worthy of their time and attention. Teachers blamed the children for their poor performance rather than seeking strategies for engaging and mobilizing the children’s potential. A predictable outcome was diminishing attendance and eventual dropout.

Most of the learners attending the Sal’i’shan Institute had these sorts of school experiences, with resulting insecurities and self-doubts as learners. Through our capacity-building program, we learned that many First Nations people feel inferior to non-First Nations people, and are more familiar with put-downs and rejection than with positive recognition. Violence and abuse are familiar to most people, and fear is a major motivating force, especially fear of people who employ violence or use threats to get their way. It is not unusual for parents to choose not to become involved at the school their children attend—this is not surprising given their own abusive experiences at school. Relationships of trust are difficult to establish, and intimacy is a challenge. Many students have little knowledge of their family and community history, and this affects their sense of personal security and cultural identity. However, our culturally grounded curriculum and teaching methods were transformative. For example, talking circles and storytelling proved to be effective methods for fostering quality teaching/learning processes. For most learners, the process of discovering or rediscovering their personal and cultural identity was crucial in initiating the journey toward wellness. Developing an understanding of the connections between the historical past and the present was a critical factor in shaping this new sense of identity. The majority of graduates discovered their abilities as critical thinkers, shed negative beliefs about themselves and their cultures, and were empowered as change agents in both their personal and work lives.

Building Blocks for Reconciliation

Our forefathers knew how to make history and did their best to continue to do this in respectful ways, even under serious, untoward circumstances. Many of their descendents are not familiar with what it takes to make our own history because we have suffered the constraints of imposed laws, values, customs, and practices. The consequences of colonization must be acknowledged and understood by all Canadians, including our First Nations and other Indigenous populations. A new vision of mutual respect must be used as a basis for bringing equity and goodwill into a genuine process of conciliation.

Relationship is a key value in Aboriginal cultures; one must at all times recognize the value of the other and demonstrate respect and a willingness to discover and honour uniqueness in a relationship, whether it is with people, land, creatures, or the Creator. One is called upon to be open to learning and to become changed for the better by the other; everyone and everything is a potential teacher in the ongoing journey to wholeness. In relationship, one must be willing to take responsibility for the impact of one’s behaviour toward the other, as well as responsibility for managing and learning from one’s responses to the other’s behaviour. Each party in the relationship is equal in worth to the other, regardless of differences in age, knowledge levels, insight, or personal authority.

This traditional way of understanding relationships can be a model for revising the imbalanced relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians generally. Significant numbers of Canadians, some with considerable power, have realized that the well-being of Indigenous citizens will contribute to the well-being of the whole society; they are motivated to achieve greater equity in the relationship between First Nations communities and Canada as a whole.

The appeal for such a changed relationship was the primary recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.14 It provided a wealth of information to counter stereotypes and accurately ground perceptions and understandings about First Nations history and present realities. More such knowledge from First Nations’ points of view must be incorporated into primary and secondary school curricula so that Canadians from an early age can learn to regard Aboriginal people with respect, become familiar with the historical realities of their lives, and grow to work together in building this multicultural country.

There are still far too many First Nations people who live in oppressed and oppressive ways, fear responsibility, and use addictive substances to cope. Such people do not “make their own history,” they let others make it for them. However, there are increasing numbers who are proactive in living their lives by finding ways to deal effectively with present challenges and working together to create a positive future. These people are major assets in the work that must be done to bring First Nations quality of life into equity with that of the majority of Canadians. They truly value the knowledge, skills, beliefs, and values they possess and apply these in their everyday life as Aboriginal individuals living in Canada. They are proud of the teachings of their ancestors and what they have learned from other nations as they work today for tomorrow and do what they can to promote family health and community wellness. Formal recognition of Indigenous knowledge, ways of knowing, core values, languages, and cultures by Canada’s core institutions would significantly help to pave the way toward the spirit of true conciliation.

This work must be done in partnership between First Nations and others. It must build on strengths inherent within First Nations cultures and communities. And it must be grounded in a belief in the adaptive nature of people and an optimism about the future they can create together in the land they share.


William Julius Mussell has been chairman of the Native Mental Health Association of Canada since 1993. In 2004, he was named one of the leaders in mental health by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, and he was recently appointed chair of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Advisory Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. He is the principal educator and manager of the Sal’i’shan Institute, a private, post-secondary institute founded in 1988 that specializes in First Nations’ programming. He is a popular educator who trained under Paulo Freire, and his long history in post-secondary teaching and leadership development includes work with teachers, social workers, community health educators, counsellors, and mental health practitioners.

In his early years, Bill served on the executive of the North American Indian Brotherhood, and he was among the pioneers of band governance and Aboriginal justice matters. Since 1980, most of his professional work has focused on First Nations and Aboriginal issues and aspirations in the fields of education, social development, and mental health. In the 1990s, healing and development challenges of community practitioners became his priority. More recently his focus turned to the study of Aboriginal mental health practices along with strategies to facilitate healing of children and youth by building on their cultural heritage. He has authored literature addressing suicide, mental health, and well-being of Aboriginal children and youth and the healing of and challenges facing First Nations men.

Bill is a member of the Skwah First Nation and is of Sto:lo heritage. His grassroots involvement in Indigenous social, economic, and political issues during the formative years of his career added significantly to his understanding of colonization and its effects. In his article, Bill places his personal and family history in a social context that reminds us of the positive influence that strong connections to culture, family, and community can have on a child’s development. Looking to the future, he provides an example of the transformative power of a decolonized model of education. His enduring faith in processes that build on the strengths inherent in Aboriginal people, cultures, and communities is evident throughout the article.

  1. I speak primarily of First Nations because I was raised in a First Nation community and do most of my work in that context, and not that of the Métis or Inuit communities. I refer to all three populations when I employ the concepts?“Aboriginal,”?“First Peoples,” or “Indigenous.”
  2. Oxford Dictionary, Major New Edition (2001).
  3. Oxford Dictionary, Major New Edition (2001).
  4. This is based on my own personal knowledge of British Columbia history. The gold rush in the 1850s and settlement from the West and South were felt strongly throughout the Fraser Valley (my home territory).
  5. Based on personal recollection.
  6. Dad shared this information with two of my brothers who later shared it with me, the eldest son.
  7. Mussell, Bill (2005). Warrior-Caregivers: Understanding the Challenges and Healing of First Nations Men. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
  8. For a detailed account of the impact of disease and other effects of colonization on Indigenous populations in the Americas, see Wesley-Esquimaux, Cynthia C. and Magdalena Smolewski (2004). Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
  9. While studying life at St. Mary’s Mission Residential School, I had read about such incidents.
  10. Mussell (2005:115).
  11. As support for a former student and a claimant, I was permitted to attend the hearing.
  12. Daes, E.I. (2000). Prologue: The Experience of Colonization around the World. In Battiste, M. (ed.) Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press: 3–8.
  13. Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum; and (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness, New York, NY: Seabury Press. Also relevant to the discussion is this book by Freire’s student: Shor, Ira (1993) Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago, ILL: The University of Chicago Press.
  14. “To begin the process, the federal, provincial and territorial governments, on behalf of the people of Canada, and national Aboriginal organizations, on behalf of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, commit themselves to building a renewed relationship based on the principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing and mutual responsibility; these principles to form the ethical basis of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies in the future and to be enshrined in a new Royal Proclamation and its companion legislation. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996:695). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.