Indigenous people regularly hear these words, or ones to their effect, in discussions about multi-generational prejudicial social policies, treaty rights, wrongs committed against them (over successive generations), and about the possibility of reconciliation from this point forward. These words are, more often than not, offered by people who, while acknowledging past wrongs, want or need to find personal distance from responsibility for having maintained the environment in which these wrongs originally, and now continue to, take place.
These are words of personal exoneration, which, while they may seem reasonable and even justifiable, give voice to the idea that while they enjoy privileges provided them by the decisions of their forebears, they hold no personal responsibility for the actions that created those privileges.
On the surface, this way of thinking would appear to be reasonable and understandable. After all, they weren’t alive when this all started. True, true! When we look below the surface, however, we find that the same ideas that gave rise to the original wrongs and injustice still exist today, albeit in modified form. Often, in the day-to-day behaviours these very same people engage in, we continue to find wilful ignorance, and apathy, judgment and stereotyping, expectations of cultural assimilation, and the election and maintenance of governments that at best ignore, at worst further degrade, First Nations peoples’ lives, homes, and communities with policies of assimilation. These ideas about the lack of personal responsibility for decisions made 50, 75, 100, or 150 years ago prevail as the foundation upon which contemporary racial prejudice is maintained.
In order for us to actually make progress on reconciliation, these ideas must be acknowledged, extricated from our policies, and forced out of the legislative isolation that has maintained Canadian Indigenous peoples as third and fourth class citizens for well over 150 years. I say third and fourth because immigrant populations, while often looked upon with varying levels of disdain have, more often than not, been treated better than this land’s original inhabitants.
In 1995, Elijah Harper called for, and then convened, the “Sacred Assembly.” Indigenous leaders and elders, Catholic, mainline, and evangelical leaders of Canada, participated in multi-day conversations about what it would take to be reconciled in this land, to live together in peaceful relationship. Together with a representative of the Canadian Conference of Catholic bishops, a member of the Citizens for Public Justice, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Bruce Clemenger, I co-authored two documents titled “Principles and Priorities for a New Relationship”, and “Proclamation of Reconciliation.”
Convened on the heels of the release of the RCAP (if you do not recognize this acronym, that says something about why you might feel no responsibility), the Assembly acknowledged the fact that the situation in which Canada found itself – and, to a significant extent, still finds itself today – rests in an unwillingness to stop doing what was done to Indigenous peoples that created the situation in the first place. Hence, the suggestion, “That was then, this is now, therefore I have no responsibility,” is vacuous. The RCAP began 25 years ago; the Sacred Assembly was 20 years ago; all major traditions of the church were invited and/or were participants. Most of you reading this were alive at that time.
Here, in part, is some of what we wrote that was embraced by that Assembly: