Reconciliation in Mourning: Queen’s Death Sparks Renewed Call for Action
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, there has been a reignition of the debate surrounding her family’s imperial legacy. At the centre of this debate is the question of how Commonwealth countries can meaningfully reconcile the impacts of past colonial atrocities with the shared aspirations of their populations moving into the future.
This has been an extreme point of contention for indigenous communities in countries that are still part of the British Commonwealth. In Canada, for example, University of Toronto Assistant Professor Michelle Daigle has argued that reconciliation efforts have failed to address the enduring structures of colonialism, having been focussed instead on “hollow performances of recognition and remorse” that seek to excise past wrong-doings from Canada’s colonial history rather than account for them.
This article offers a brief exploration of the history of colonial oppression in Canada, the complexity of conceptualising and delivering programs of reconciliation, and what challenges lie ahead on the road into the future.
A brief history of colonial oppression in Canada
Indigenous communities in Canada fall under three main titles: First Nation peoples, those native to sub-Arctic Canada; the Inuit communities, who are native to the Arctic territories; and the Metis, a multi-ethnic community descended from First Nation peoples who married French settlers. The impact of British colonisation on these communities may be analysed in two primary periods of Canadian history. The first concerns Great Britain’s territorial acquisitions between 1600 and 1867, and the second from 1867 onwards when the British colonies of Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec were officially proclaimed the ‘Dominion of Canada’ and a self-governing state within the British Empire.
During the first period, the largest impact on these communities stemmed from the British legal doctrine of terra nullius — Latin for ‘unoccupied land’. This permitted British colonists, in the eyes of British law, to annex fertile, indigenous lands and settle them for their own purposes. During the second period, as social and political structures across the Dominion were codified into formal colonial government, legislation was implemented that aimed to assimilate indigenous communities into the new ‘Canadian’ way of life.
Primary among these was the ‘Indian Act’ of 1876. This legislation implemented a system of governance that barred indigenous electoral participation and processes of leadership selection — notably dismissing the leadership role played by women in First Nation communities. Perhaps the most devastating of the legislative measures was the forced relocation of indigenous children into British-styled residential schools, which were deliberately established several hundred kilometres away from their communities to indoctrinate the children into British customs. These schools were operated by churches with financial support from the colonial government. From 1884, it is estimated that more than 150,000 children between the ages of 4 and 16 were placed into the residential schools, with an estimated 4,100 students dying in their custody. Testimonies from students revealed that they were routinely prohibited from practising their culture and made to live in substandard conditions. In some cases, students were abused at these institutions. The last of these schools was shut down in 1996.
What is reconciliation and how has it been attempted in Canada?
Reconciliation is a broad concept that encompasses a variety of measures. Many groups and individuals have their own ideas and perspectives on what is needed to reconcile past wrong-doings, ranging from the material to the symbolic. Since the final closure of the schools by the late 1990s, multiple lawsuits have been pursued to seek monetary compensation for survivors of these institutions. In 2006, for example, a class action lawsuit provided settlements of CAD 10,000 to survivors of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) who had spent one year at a school, and CAD 3,000 for each subsequent year.
However, indigenous activist groups have argued for other approaches that supplement monetary compensation yet also deliver emotional and cultural restitution via recognition of past wrong-doings. This has been particularly salient following the discovery of a mass grave at the Kamloops IRS in British Columbia that contained the remains of 215 children. Activist groups have called on the churches who operated the schools, the Canadian government who financed the schools, and the British Royal Family to make a formal and sincere apology to the survivors and the families of the deceased who suffered at IRSs across Canada. Indeed, in May of this year during then-Prince Charles’ tour of Canada, the National Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations, RoseAnne Archibald, made a direct appeal to the former Prince of Wales to petition Queen Elizabeth II to issue an apology on behalf of the Church of England. The former Prince responded that he “acknowledged” the suffering, but refrained from offering a formal apology.
The path forward
As it stands, reconciliation is a complicated process — one that is enmeshed within, yet appears to often be at odds with, other facets of Canadian law. Some communities believe litigation still to be a viable avenue, as demonstrated by the class action lawsuit previously mentioned. However, for others, such as the Wet’suwet’en People who have created the rallying cry “Reconciliation is dead”, it is apparent that the legal system is set against them.
Wet’suwet’en land falls squarely in the path of the Coastal GasLink, a natural gas pipeline owned by TC Energy which “will span 670 kilometres across northern [British Columbia]” upon completion. As of August 2022, the pipeline is two-thirds complete. In 2019, TC Energy was granted a legal injunction against the Wet’suwet’en protestors who were blocking access to construction sites along the pipeline. According to legal experts, the use of such injunctions demonstrates how Canada’s legal system is aligned against the needs of indigenous groups. A study of a hundred applications revealed “that 76% of injunctions filed against First Nation groups were granted, while 81% filed by First Nation groups against corporations were denied”. Yet this disparity, according to University of Ottawa Associate Professor Aimee Craft, is not one that can necessarily be fixed through the courts, but through political change, as this is where the “underlying issues” between indigenous and Canadian law exist.
Such is the importance of King Charles III’s ascension in the current moment. As the world, and particularly Commonwealth countries, look on, indigenous peoples across the world, and especially in Canada, are leading the movement towards independence from the British monarchy. However, some have speculated that the longevity of the relationship between Canada and the United Kingdom is likely to be a significant barrier in the push for change. For now, the indigenous peoples are left in suspense, waiting to see if the new Head of State for Canada will usher in a new era of reconciliation and independence, or whether he will continue to acknowledge but not apologise on behalf of his family.
Shajara Khan graduated from UNSW with a Master of International Relations and a Bachelor of Arts (Korean Studies). During her master's, she worked on her dissertation analysing how ideology plays a major role in U.S. politics