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Reconciliation Means Engaging All, Even Newcomers

August 2, 2022

** Trigger warning: mention of residential schools, racism, and violence**

Since the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were uncovered at a former residential “school” last summer, much awareness and conversation has been generated around relationships between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. (The number of unmarked graves is now at over 4,000.) Indeed, the Confederation of Tomorrow 2021 Survey found that 60% of all people in Canada are very/somewhat familiar with the history of residential “schools”. Although a commendable improvement, significant gaps in knowledge and perception remain. That same survey found that Indigenous people (77%) were far more likely to be familiar with the history of residential “schools” than first-generation immigrants (55%). Similarly, Indigenous people (61%) were more likely than first-generation immigrants (42%) to believe that governments have not gone far enough to advance Reconciliation. 

In this op-ed, I make the case that although the increased consciousness for reconciliation is promising, Canada needs to do more to educate Newcomers and refugees about Indigenous presence, and to engage these groups as active participants in the journey to reconciliation.

Why Bridge Indigenous-Newcomer Gaps?

Colonialism and racism are ongoing and alive in the present. The same racist logic underpinning historical colonial policies (i.e., residential schools, forced removal from lands for settlements) persist today. Indigenous Peoples are subjected to harmful and inaccurate stereotypes created and perpetuated by settler society and institutions (i.e., as being “willing ‘wards of the state’” or “alcoholics/drug addicts”). 

As part of my research with BAM – Books Art Music Collective, I interviewed seven Newcomers. From these conversations, I observed that Newcomers, initially, tend to be equipped with inaccurate information because they heard harmful stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples by settlers in Canada and/or their countries of origin. Stereotypes include Indigenous Peoples as being “unwelcoming to Newcomers/refugees,” “dangerous,” and “only existing in the past”. This logic is embedded in our government institutions and serves to dispossess Indigenous Peoples of their political power, land relationships and rights to health. We see this when we hear on the news or our Facebook feeds about the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons, lack of clean water infrastructure on reserves, racism in B.C. healthcare, and the criminalization of land-defenders opposing resource extraction on their territories, to name a few.

Although in different contexts, we must also recognize that many Newcomers come from once-colonized nation-states, and that over 80 million refugees are forcibly displaced from their homes. After arrival, Newcomers and refugees are also subjected to numerous racist stereotypes and individual-systemic forms of discrimination. According to a 2019 Ipsos poll, nearly 4 in 10 Canadians agree with the perception that “immigration is a threat to white Canadians”, while 3 in 10 believe that “Muslims in Canada follow Sharia law, not Canadian laws.” At a systemic level, refugees experience a lack of access to healthcare and housing, due to their precarious refugee status and economic situation. For refugee women, both their gender and lack of status increase their vulnerability to intimate partner violence.     

Though the particularities of experiences with racism vary, both newcomers and Indigenous Peoples have broadly similar experiences of being subjugated by white settler-colonial society. This highlights the need for policies and programs to help build bridges between newcomers and Indigenous Peoples, so that we can stand up against all forms of injustice in the face of divisions.

The question I’ve sought to address through consultations, surveys and interviews is: how to build these bridges? I’ve listed three potential steps that governments and non-profit organizations should take to ensure that newcomers and refugees have access to the tools and knowledge required to advance reconciliation.

Step 1: Integrate Indigenous Experiences into Newcomer Education Materials

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made this recommendation in their 94 Calls to Action, specifically its 93rd Call to Action which implores the federal government to:

[R]evise the information kit for newcomers to Canada and its citizenship test to reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties and the history of residential schools.

In the words of Ali Abukar, once-newcomer of Somali descent, reforming the citizenship test and orientation programs can address some of the informational barriers preventing newcomers from knowing about Indigenous presence.

 “In my own move to Canada, I was not given the opportunity to learn enough about the Indigenous Peoples, their history, and their positive contributions to Canadian society. I had a brief orientation that only covered topics like living in Canada, what to expect, and how to access available services,” wrote Abukar, in an excerpt from the book Reconciliation in Practice: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.

Step 2: Interactive Programming to Promote Reconciliation and Bridge-building

Newcomer-serving non-profit organizations can contribute to bridge-building between newcomers and Indigenous Peoples by hosting community events that foster dialogue and enable both groups to learn from one another. 

Indeed, some organizations already have spearheaded initiatives to bridge newcomers and Indigenous Peoples. One case in point is Immigration Partnership Winnipeg (IPW), a Winnipeg-based organization that has put together community events to build bridges between Indigenous people and newcomers. IPW has led bridge-building work through diverse means, such as Pow Wow celebrations, Blanket Exercises, and Indigenous-newcomer face-to-face forums.

According to Roxana Akhmetova’s analysis of multiple IPW-led Indigenous-newcomer events, newcomers were observed to have changed their opinions in a positive direction after hearing about Indigenous Peoples’ accomplishments. Newcomers also felt that hearing Indigenous people talk about ongoing colonialism were “eye-opening” experiences.

Yet, many non-profit organizations serving newcomers still have not delivered community programming to advance reconciliation. One critical barrier that needs to be overcome is the lack of funding and capacity. During an interview, a refugee organization representative expressed that non-profits work in silos and have to follow the specific instructions set by their funders. As a result, their organization has not been able to secure resources to deliver reconciliation programming to newcomers.

Step 3: Support Efforts to Indigenize English as a Second Language (ESL) Education Curricula

Indigenization is an approach which “recognizes the validity of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge and perspectives” and looks for “opportunities for Indigeneity to be expressed” (i.e., through integrating Indigenous ways of knowing/doing).

Indigenization requires a shift in the the way ESL education teaches students. This necessitates critical reflection (by educators, institutions, and provincial ministries of education) on what’s inside textbooks, the power dynamics inherent in our language and actions, how Indigenous voices and knowledge are represented, and how Indigenous worldviews contrast with the Western colonial worldviews that dominate education (especially on our relationships to land). In practice, ESL could privilege Indigenous authors and speakers, and integrate Indigenous teaching methods which encourage dialogue and interaction (i.e., talking circles). These efforts should be done in equal partnerships with local Indigenous organizations and leaders. Why? It would provide newcomers with different ways of knowing, seeing, and experiencing the world that have traditionally been excluded from ESL education. 

Some educators might say that such considerations are “subordinate” to the “prime” objective of language learning. Rather, indigenization can excite newcomers to learn English through engaging activities, while opening up possibilities to gain a bigger learning experience that goes beyond memorizing words and phrases in a classroom. If educators intentionally partake in self-education, and are provided the resources to implement indigenization strategies, this could reduce instances of paradigm-change being abandoned for familiar methods. 

The three policies advocated in this piece are a few steps that would help build empathy, connection, intercultural understanding, and mutual respect between newcomers and Indigenous people, in a world overwhelmed by polarization, racism, and ecological disaster. Let’s reject delay, move to action, and work with Indigenous communities as co-leaders on the journey towards reconciliation.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Additional Comments from the Author,

I put quotes around “school(s)” to contest the notion that residential “schools” were places of learning, and to be mindful of the fact that countless Indigenous children experienced unnecessary and senseless torture and abuse in such colonial institutions.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, colonialism is “is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country [or Nation], occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”

I would like to thank all of my interviewees (both individuals and from organizations serving newcomers, refugees and Indigenous Peoples) for taking the time to share their wonderful and varied insights over Zoom calls.