It was already raining. The clouds were low. Still, as we ventured up the Sea to Sky Highway, we could see the stunningly tall trees, towering rock faces, and the occasional spirited waterfall. Soon, the forest cover thickened and we were surrounded by enchanted trees heavy with moss. There was something divine about this place.
About 40 of us were gathered on unceded Squamish territory in late September, for the United Church of Canada (UCC) Indigenous Justice and Climate Justice Consultation, and the UCC Young Adult Forum. Indigenous elders and residential school survivors, Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, United Church justice staff, clergy and church members, and others, like me, from partner organizations.
There was an intensity to the conversation as we explored how to live out reconciliation and climate justice commitments, and how to animate critical policy discussions in this moment. Reflecting on this conversation, three words come to mind: complexity, collaboration, and courage. But perhaps the most significant lesson is wrapped up in a fourth word: choice.
I am a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman with a graduate degree. For these (and several other reasons), I am a person with significant privilege. Though deeply troubled by the historic and ongoing oppression and marginalization of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, I’ve often struggled with how best to participate in reconciliation. Fear of – or perhaps mere discomfort with – making mistakes has prevented me from really sticking my neck out and getting involved. That is my privilege and it isn’t very pretty.
While I choose whether to pull back or lean in, my Indigenous brothers and sisters are born into a struggle. It isn’t their ego, or their comfort that is at stake. It is their culture, their place, their identity; their language and their person.
Indigenous peoples are by no means a monolithic group. As in any society, there are diverse perspectives, ideas, and interests. Water protectors and land defenders may not always see eye-to-eye with their chief and council. Elders living on reserve may hold different views from urban Indigenous youth. And, of course, even those within these groups will sometimes have different opinions.
What they have in common is a vested interest in decisions that are made about land use, especially as it relates to energy production, transportation, and use. Why? Because across Canada, “development” is taking place on unceded territories, and in the context of broken treaties; in situations where climate disruption can lead to cultural collapse.
In my work for public justice, I have advocated for refugee rights and measures to address poverty in Canada – even though I am neither a refugee, nor poor. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit do not choose to advocate in defense of land, water, and community well-being the way that I do. Their life experience as Indigenous peoples compels them to action.
Yes, I made a contribution to the UCC discernment process. But it is clear (and not terribly surprising) that I received far more from the experience than I was able to offer. Perhaps the greatest gift I received was an invitation from Indigenous colleagues to journey forward as friends and allies.
Reconciliation necessarily includes both Indigenous peoples and settlers. We must all own our capacity to contribute humbly to reconciliation, while holding space for Indigenous leadership.
The UCC’s adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation follows from apologies and efforts towards solidarity. It is about atoning for the past, committing to honouring and advocating for Indigenous rights, and reimagining and rebuilding Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations. This work challenges us all, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
As we move forward, Indigenous colleagues asked that we, as settlers, respect their unique and diverse experiences, recognize past traumas (and ongoing challenges on the healing journey), and listen with the intention to understand. They said that tangible support like financial resources for cultural initiatives and language reclamation, as well as research and legal expertise, would be helpful. And, more than once, they encouraged us to join with them in ceremony where there is space for both struggle and celebration.
I don’t know who decided that this meeting would take place on a 165-hectare ecological reserve, but it is clear that it was on purpose. The landscape of the Cheakamus Centre exuded rootedness and helped to reinforce the beautiful messages of hope and encouragement that we received from Indigenous brothers and sisters. It – and they – reminded us to walk gently, be respectful, and to use our power as allies and people of privilege to help chart a positive way forward.