Without massive restitution made to Indigenous peoples, collectively and as individuals, including land, transfers of federal and provincial funds, and other forms of compensation for past harms and continuing injustices committed against the land and Indigenous peoples, reconciliation will permanently absolve colonial injustices and is itself a further injustice. This much is clear in our Indigenous frame of understanding of the past and present of our shared histories, even if Indigenous leaders are too afraid of the political repercussions and unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to advance such an agenda.
Other people’s understandings of the nature of the problem we are facing are a more complex issue. The complete ignorance of Canadian society about the facts of their relationship with Indigenous peoples and the wilful denial of historical reality by Canadians detracts from the possibility of any meaningful discussion on true reconciliation. Limited to a discussion of history that includes only the last five or ten years, the corporate media and general public focus on the inefficiently spent billions of dollars per year handed out through the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs system. The complex story of what went on in the past and the tangled complexities of the past’s impact on the present and future of our relationships are reduced to questions of entitlements, rights, and good governance within the already established institutions of the state. Consider the effect of lengthening our view and extending society’s view. When considering 100 or 300 years of interactions, it would become clear even to white people that the real problem facing their country is that nations are fighting over questions of conquest and survival, of empire or genocide, and of moral claims to be a just society. Considering the long view and true facts, the Indian problem becomes a question of right and wrong for justice at its most basic form.
Something was stolen, lies were told, and they have never been made right. That is the crux of the problem. If we do not shift away from the pacifying discourse of reconciliation and begin to reframe people’s perceptions of the problem so that it is not a question of how to reconcile with colonialism that faces us but instead how to use restitution as the first step towards creating justice and a moral society, we will be advancing colonialism, not decolonization. What was stolen must be given back, and amends must be made for the crimes that were committed from which all non-Indigenous Canadians, old families and recent immigrants alike, have gained their existence as people on this land and citizens of this country.
When I say to a settler, “Give it back,” am I talking about them giving up the country and moving away? No. Irredentism has never been in the vision of our peoples. When I say, “Give it back,” I am talking about settlers demonstrating respect for what we share—the land and its resources—and making things right by offering us the dignity and freedom we are due and returning enough of our power and land for us to be self-sufficient.
Restitution is not a play on white guilt; that is what reconciliation processes have become. Guilt is a monotheistic concept foreign to Indigenous cultures; it does not brood under the threat of punishment over past misdeeds to the point of moral and political paralysis. Restitution is purification. It is a ritual of disclosure and confession in which there is an acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s harmful actions and a genuine demonstration of sorrow and regret, constituted in reality by putting forward a promise to never again do harm and by redirecting one’s actions to benefit the one who has been wronged. Even the act of proposing a shift to this kind of discussion is a radical challenge to the reconciling negotiations that try to fit us into the colonial legacy rather than to confront and defeat it. When I speak of restitution, I am speaking of restoring ourselves as peoples, our spiritual power, dignity, and the economic bases for our autonomy. Canadians understand implicitly that reconciliation will not force them to question what they have done, but it will allow them to congratulate themselves for their forbearance and understanding once Indigenous peoples—or, to be precise, using the language of the conciliatory paradigm, Aboriginal peoples—are reconciled with imperialism. Reconciliation may be capable of moving us beyond the unpalatable stench of overt racism in public and social interactions. This would be an easy solution to the problem of colonialism for white people, and no doubt most would be satisfied with this obfuscation of colonial realities. But logically and morally, there is no escaping that the real and deeper problems of colonialism are a direct result of the theft of our lands, which cannot be addressed in any way other than through the return of those lands to us.
There are at least two aspects of this large problem. The first is comprehension of the economic dimension; the continuing effect upon our communities of being illegally dispossessed of their lands. The second is the social dimension; the political and legal denials of collective Indigenous existences. Recasting the Onkwehonwe (original people) struggle as one of seeking restitution as the precondition to reconciliation is not extremist or irrational, as most Indigenous intellectual and political leaders and certainly all white people will no doubt respond. Restitution, as a broad goal, involves demanding the return of what was stolen, accepting reparations (either land, material, or monetary recompense) for what cannot be returned, and forging a new socio-political relationship based on Canadians’ admission of wrongdoing and acceptance of the responsibility and obligation to engage Indigenous peoples in a restitution-reconciliation peace-building process.
The other side of the problem is methodological; the lessons of Indigenous people’s struggles for self-determination since the mid-twentieth century are that restitution and reconciliation can only be achieved through contention and the generation of constructive conflict with the state and with the Canadian society through the resurgence and demonstration of Indigenous power in the social and political spheres. From the Red Power Movement through to the Oka Crisis and the new generation of warrior societies, history has demonstrated that it is impossible either to transform the colonial society from within colonial institutions or to achieve justice and peaceful coexistence without fundamentally transforming the institutions of the colonial society themselves. Put simply, the imperial enterprise called “Canada” that is operating in the guise of a liberal democratic state is, by design and culture, incapable of just and peaceful relations with Indigenous peoples. The consistent failure of negotiated solutions to achieve any meaningful change in the lives of Indigenous peoples or to return control of the land over to them proves this fact (agreeing to govern and use the land as would a white man in return for recognition of your governing authority does not count as liberation from colonialism). Real change will happen only when settlers are forced into a reckoning of who they are, what they have done, and what they have inherited; then they will be unable to function as colonials and begin instead to engage other peoples as respectful human beings.
There are serious constraints to the recognition of Indigenous rights in this country because the imperative to assimilate all difference is, in fact, an inherent feature of liberal democracy. Attempts to move away from the racist paternalism so typical of all colonial countries are handicapped by the framing of the entire decolonization project in the legal and political context of a liberal democratic state. Detached from the colonial mythology of the settler society through the application of a disciplined logic of just principles, Indigenous-settler relations cannot be obviously reconciled without deconstructing the institutions that were built on racism and colonial exploitation. For justice to be achieved out of a colonial situation, a radical rehabilitation of the state is required. Without radical changes to the state itself, all proposed changes are ultimately assimilative.
There are fundamental differences between Indigenous and Canadian models of societal organization and governance. Indigenous cultures and the governing structures that emerged from within them are founded on relationships and obligations of kinship relations, on the economic view that sustainability of relationships and perpetual reproduction of material life are prime objectives, on the belief that organizations should bind family units together with their land, and on a conception of political freedom that balances a person’s autonomy with accountability to one’s family. Contrast this to the liberal democratic state in which the primary relationship is among rights-bearing citizens and the core function of government is to integrate pre-existing social and political diversities into the singularity of a state, assimilating all cultures into a single patriotic identity, and in which political freedom is mediated by distant, supposedly representative structures in an inaccessible system of public accountability that has long been corrupted by the influence of corporations.
How can anyone expect that these two totally different political cultures are reconcilable? They are not. Colonial institutions and the dysfunctional subcultures they have spawned within Indigenous communities are the result of failed attempts to force Indigenous peoples into a liberal democratic mould. Given the essential conflict of form and objectives between Indigenous and liberal governance, one or the other must be transformed in order for a reconciliation to occur. As majoritarian tyrannies within colonial situations, liberal democratic societies always operate on the assumption that Indigenous peoples will succumb and submit to the overwhelming cultural and numerical force of the settler society. Huge costs are involved, monetarily and socially, in the effort to make Indigenous individuals assimilate to liberal democracy and Judeo-Christian cultural values, with no justification other than those weak arguments formed on ideological and cultural prejudices toward the supposed superiority of Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage. This is why reconciliation, as it is commonly understood, is unjust; any accommodation to liberal democracy is a surrender of the very essence of any kind of an Indigenous existence.
Unprejudiced logics of decolonization point instead to the need to create coexistence among autonomous political communities. Eventual peaceful coexistence demands a decolonization process in which Onkwehonwe will be extricated from, not further entrenched within, the values, cultures, and practices of liberal democracy. If the goals of decolonization are justice and peace, then the process to achieve these goals must reflect a basic covenant on the part of both Indigenous peoples and settlers to honour each other’s existence. This honouring cannot happen when one partner in the relationship is asked to sacrifice their heritage and identity in exchange for peace. This is why the only possibility of a just relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settler society is the conception of a nation-to-nation partnership between peoples, the kind of relationship reflected in the original treaties of peace and friendship consecrated between Indigenous peoples and the newcomers who started arriving in our territories. The only way to remove ourselves from the injustice of the present relationship is to begin implementing a process of resurgence-apology-restitution and seeking to restore the pre-colonial relationship of sharing and cooperation among diverse peoples.
Canada rebukes attempts to reason logically through the problem in this way. Mainstream arguments about restitution and reconciliation always end up becoming conservative defences of obvious injustices against even the most principled and fair arguments for restitution. It should no doubt be commonly accepted that legitimizing injustices promotes further injustices. Tolerating crimes encourages criminality. But the present Canadian argument presumes that since the injustices are historical and the passage of time has certainly led to changed circumstances for both the alleged perpetrators and for the victims, the crime has been erased and there is no obligation to pay for it. This is the sophisticated version of the common settler sentiment: “The Indians may have had a rough go of it, but it’s not my fault because I wasn’t around one hundred years ago,” or, “I bought my ranch from the government, fair and square!” In the wake of the Indian residential schools apology and the compensation of the Settlement Agreement, it must be said that half-hearted and legally constrained government apologies and small monetary payoffs of those remaining individuals who endured abuse in residential schools do not come close to true acknowledgement, much less moral, legal, or political absolution for the much larger crime of dispossession of an entire land mass.
The first argument—pro-restitution—is powerful in itself. It is precisely the reluctance of the settler to investigate and indict his own actions and those of his ancestors that allows the injustice to compound continuously and to entrench itself within the dominant culture. Given the facts and the reality that define Indigenous-settler relations, the counter-argument of historicity points to the necessity of restitution. Placing the counter-argument in an actual social and political context negates any power that it may otherwise have in a theoretical or mythical context. The key to this is in the assertion that the passage of time leads to changes in circumstance. This is fundamentally untrue, especially when made in relation to Indigenous peoples, Canadian society, and the injustice of a colonial relationship. Between the beginning of this century and the beginning of the last, people’s clothes may have changed and their names may be different, but the games they play are the same. Without a substantial change in the circumstances of colonization, there is no basis for considering the historical injustice. The crime of colonialism is present today, as are its perpetrators, and there is yet no moral or logical basis for Indigenous peoples to seek reconciliation with Canada.
This essay is adapted from the author’s discussion of reconciliation in Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (Peterborough, ON: UTP/Broadview Press, 2005).
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred is a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) philosopher, writer, and teacher. Taiaiake was born in Montreal in 1964 and raised on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory where he lived until 1996, except for his service in the US Marine Corps during the 1980s. He presently lives on Snaka Mountain in Wsanec Nation Territory in British Columbia with his wife and sons. He studied history at Concordia University in Montreal and holds a doctorate in Government from Cornell University. Taiaiake began his teaching career at Concordia University and is now Director and Professor of Indigenous Governance, a program he founded, at the University of Victoria.
Taiaiake has lectured at many universities and colleges in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia and has served as an advisor to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, and to many other Indigenous governments and organizations.
Taiaiake has been awarded a Canada Research Chair, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the field of education, and the Native American Journalists Association award for best column writing. His writing includes numerous scholarly articles and contributed essays in newspapers, journals, and magazines as well as three books, Wasáse (Broadview, 2005), a runner-up for the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year in 2005; the influential and best-selling Peace, Power, Righteousness (Oxford University Press, 1999); and Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors (Oxford University Press, 1995). ↩