What’s our role in Truth and Reconciliation?

When it comes to Reconciliation, are the responsibilities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people the same or different? Are non-Indigenous people welcome to attend Indigenous community centres and gatherings? Are “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” the correct terms to use at all?

These were some of the questions raised in Kingston during a recent luncheon hosted by the Community Foundation for Kingston & Area in collaboration with local Indigenous partners. Described as “an opportunity to learn the truth of the First People’s’ experience in Canada from an Indigenous perspective”, the event featured three speakers (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) and a sizeable crowd of 125 attendees. But first, in accordance with Indigenous custom, the event opened with a prayer from an Elder.

First up was Dr. Terri-Lynn Brennan, a self-described non-status First Nations Canadian, and Program Coordinator in the Cultural Services department at the City of Kingston, who encouraged everyone to view Reconciliation as “having a relationship”.

“The first step to Reconciliation is to listen. To hear people’s truths and history, and to respect it. When the questions stop, we assume no-one cares,” Dr. Brennan said.

She also reiterated the importance of respecting titles. “Indigenous” is a generic term, she cautioned, whereas “First People’s” specifically refers to the Canadian context. Related, Dr. Brennan said it was important to recognize diversity, and to support and promote the visibility of First People’s. Cultural activities such as drumming, smudging and moon ceremonies were examples she gave where First People’s traditions and values are celebrated.

Next up was author Robert Wells who wrote WawahteNorthern Lights” – which shares personal recounts from people who endured the Indian residential school system; the suffering, and an overview of steps since taken to rectify the significant wrongdoings.

Wawahte cover

Mr. Wells grew up in a remote part of Northwestern Ontario, and has enjoyed a lifetime of friendship with Indigenous people. His intent with the book is to shine a light on the injustices done, and to positively frame the First People’s culture, values and ways of living at one with the land. He has partnered with producer John Sanfilippo to create a documentary to accompany the book. The book is presently being translated into French and also into some of Canada’s Indigenous languages, while Wells and Sanfilippo are advocating to get the book and documentary included in school curriculums across Canada.

“It will take an educational system to make a difference,” Mr. Wells emphasized. “Hopefully our children will grow up with a different attitude towards each other.”

He echoed the earlier speaker’s words that only through listening and acknowledging the past, can Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples move forward together in a more hopeful future.

“I want to tell this country about the real history between us – only then can Reconciliation happen!”

The final speaker was Shannon Monk Payne, a member of St. Theresa Point First Nation. Ms. Monk Payne is the lead for AFN’s It’s Our Time First Nations Education Tool Kit, an Indigenous Advisor for Teach for Canada, and a board member for Kingston’s Heritage Fair.

Ms. Monk Payne set the scene by quoting National Chief Bellegarde: “We are First Nations, treated like second-class citizens living in third world conditions”.

Canada is rated sixth in the world for quality of life, yet this drops to 63rd place when isolating the results to First Nations’ living conditions in Canada, Ms. Monk Payne said, going on to  summarize the issues and injustices for Indigenous people in Canada: the housing shortages, lack of access to clean drinking water, food security issues, chronic poverty, and over-representation in the justice system.

“We need a strengths-based approach to how we move forward,” she emphasized. “We need to view Reconciliation as a national responsibility, acknowledge and address the intergenerational impact of the grief cycle, and make investments in human capital to close the gaps.”

Communities have a large role to play in dialogue, debate, discussion and research to support priorities identified by First Nations.

So, what can Canadians do?

Let go of preconceived notions, learn more about Indigenous groups in your area, read the Truth and Reconciliation Report and its 94 calls to action, Ms. Monk Payne suggested.

“The current programming is siloed and competitive instead of being about wellness and wholeness. Funding is unpredictable or non-existent. The system is difficult to access, in terms of service delivery and cultural access,” she said.

“We want one-stop, holistic services that include on-the-land learning, dialogues that bring in the whole community, and support for cultural education products like Wawahte and the digital toolkit. We are all Treaty people; that’s what Reconciliation is about.”

Reflecting on the event afterwards, Michael Bell, President of the Community Foundation for Kingston & Area, explained how the Speaker Series event was designed to introduce local initiatives to act upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s findings.

A starting point for their learnings was exploring what language to use.

“We learned in greater depth and detail what the First  Peoples’ community resources are, and their degree of accessibility to the wider community,” said Mr. Bell. The event also generated a small amount of protest, he said, adding: “We learned how to prepare for that, and ameliorate it with the help of advice from panel participants.”

The Community Foundation for Kingston & Area is now investigating the feasibility of hosting or sponsoring a “Talking Circle” to continue the conversation.

“For our community, this is a beginning. The pain revealed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada occurred over many generations; it will take many future generations of ‘walking together’ to heal. These are first steps.”

Meanwhile, Community Foundations of Canada and community foundations across the country are working with Indigenous organizations and philanthropic partners to create spaces where meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups can begin.

Learn more about our partnerships for Reconciliation.


Terri-Lynn Brennan’s Presentation
Bob Wells’ and John Sanfilippo’s Presentation / Documentary Trailer, Wawahte
Shannon Monk Payne’s Presentation

Related resources:

It’s Our Time First Nations Education Toolkit (presentation) (2016)
Best Practices in Indigenous Education (2009)

Take action:

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Findings (2015)
94 Calls to Action (2015)
The Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action (2015)

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