Reconciling Injustices in a Pluralistic Canada

Further to an earlier post (Opinion: Reconciling injustices in a pluralistic Canada) on the Simon Fraser Centre for Dialogue on historical recognition and reconciliation, obtained the final report and discussion documents. For those interested, it provides a good overview of recognition/reconciliation challenges, principles and pitfalls. The report lists the following principles:

Values-based decision-making: Rebuilding relationships between affected communities and Canadian society requires trust, shared intentions and long-term commitment. Lacking these, a reconciliation process risks causing further harm rather than healing.

Acknowledging shared history: Recognizing the full scope of past injustices is a necessary first step toward reconciliation. Witnessing stories, incorporating past injustices into the official narrative of Canadian history, and educating the public are critical elements of this.

Accountability: Governments must be accountable for past actions and take substantive actions to repair the resulting harm. The form this takes is circumstance dependent.

Opportunities to work through conflict: Space for comprehensive dialogue must be built into any reconciliation process, including upfront space for consensus building within the affected community and the mutual exchange of perspectives between members of the community and government.

Balanced community representation: Reconciliation processes must engage the full range of actors within the affected community, recognizing that communities are diverse and legitimately include different interests. Where community leadership exists, it must demonstrate the extent to which it accomplishes this goal of balanced representation.

Along with the more structured decisions, participants were also allowed to provide their assessment of one particular step or activity that would most help reconciliation:

Education, where educators and all parts of the education system fully communicate the truth of past injustices, and all Canadians understand a common history.

Substantive legacies, such as policy changes to specific legislation and resources, are provided to communities to correct and compensate for past injustices.

Responsiveness by government and Canadian society, where power structures evolve to ensure they reflect the needs of all communities, especially those that are marginalized or lack political power.

Mutually-held values and support, where all Canadians embrace ideas such as diversity, inclusivity and a shared sense of humanity.

Self-empowerment and advocacy within communities affected by injustice, leading to broader changes within society.

One of the more interesting processes and engagement on how to engage and build consensus.

Looking back at my experience with the Community and National Historical Recognition Programs (CHRP and NHRP), the community consultations were largely led at the political level.

The balance between a full and inclusive reconciliation process, and delivering practical initiatives that recognize past injustices, is hard to achieve.

While there were fairly open consultations with some of the communities, leading to an initial program design under Minister Oda, in the end Minister Kenney found out that these did not satisfy the political needs of some of the key communities such as Ukrainian Canadians. His personal consultations with key community leaders and organizations led him to recraft the programs in order to meet the political needs, and largely did so successfully. Some communities ended up happier than others (e.g., Ukrainian Canadians, Jewish Canadians); similarly some community organizations and individuals were unhappier than others (e.g., some Chinese Canadian and Italian Canadian organizations).

In the end, while there was consensus between the Martin and Harper governments on the communities to be recognized, how each government responded to the communities reflected their political objectives and interests.

In the end, reconciliation has to work through the political process, and this report, by presenting the more ideal scenarios, provides a reference point to judge some of the inevitable compromises that happen in the political process.

On the other hand, many if not most of the projects funded under CHRP were focussed on education and awareness. The recent commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru is but one example of how a story largely ignored by the mainstream media in the past now attracted major media coverage.

And most of these community experiences are now part of our national narrative in Discover Canada, the citizenship guide.

As to the more ambitious items on the “wish list”  (e.g., legacies, power structures, empowerment), the success of the communities in having these events recognized, and the ongoing political attention to community interests, shows a very different Canada to when these events occurred. For some, this may not be enough; for others, it may be too much. But overall, Canadian society continues to respond to the changing nature of our country, and the democratic pressures of the more organized and influential communities.

Report and discussion document links below:

Dialogue Report

Discussion Guide