University Canada West was honoured to host a special event, Truth and Reconciliation in Canada – Direct from Kathleen Mahoney and Phil Fontaine, on March 3.

Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Kathleen Mahoney, Professor of Law at the University of Calgary and the primary architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, joined UCW Interim President Sheldon Levy for an enlightening and frank discussion about Canada’s history, the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada and the path to truth and reconciliation.

Musqueam Elder Rose Guerin opened the event with a welcome prayer and land acknowledgement, before Professor Mahoney started the presentation tackling the “truth” in truth and reconciliation.

“For non-Indigenous persons, like myself, acknowledging territory recognizes and respects Indigenous people’s presence, both in the past and in the present, to build respectful relationships. Acknowledging the land is an important part of reconciliation that honours the authentic history of North America,” Professor Mahoney said.

She spoke about the truth of Canada, how it developed and what its values are, and how the country’s origin story, which has been told to Canadians, as well as immigrants and refugees, for generations is not true.

It has been widely taught that Canada came into being through the efforts of the British and the French – they created a constitution in 1867 that formed the bedrock of the Canadian identity.

“But here’s the problem. The story is not true,” Professor Mahoney said. “It was never true.”

She outlined how the Indigenous peoples were ignored and omitted from Canada’s origin story, the legalized exclusion of the country’s First Nations from equal citizenship through the British North America Act and the Indian Act, which she described as perpetrating “systemic discrimination and cultural genocide,” and the residential school system and other laws and policies that have marginalized and demonized Indigenous peoples since contact.

“The Indian Act is now the only apartheid piece of legislation existing in the world today where an act of government defines a person’s racial connection or their racial identity,” Professor Mahoney said. “Apparently it struck no one as improper to hand the control of an entire race to a branch of the federal bureaucracy.”

She described reconciliation as a “multifaceted process that may take decades, or generations, to achieve. It depends on both attitudes and actions.

“What is clear, however, is that reconciliation will not be achieved unless the foundation based on the true history is formalized recognizing the true role of Indigenous people’s in Canada’s story of origin as equal partners in confederation.”

Mr. Fontaine, the longest serving National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations who is credited with negotiating the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which included financial settlements for survivors and the establishment of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, continued the presentation delving deeper into the subject of reconciliation and the ongoing impact of Canada’s residential school system.

“If we are to achieve true reconciliation of all peoples in Canada, it must be based on the truth,” he said. “We have to dig deep into the history of Canada and how we’re come to the place we’re at today, still very challenged by so many obstacles that have been around for a long time.”

Mr. Fontaine said that to achieve reconciliation, those obstacles must be set aside to make space for Indigenous peoples so they can occupy their rightful place in Canada.

He explained how the residential school system inflicted inter-generational trauma on Indigenous peoples and nearly extinct aspects of Indigenous culture.

“Because of residential schools we’ve lost most of our languages,” he said. “Most of our languages are on the verge of extinction. In fact, every single Indigenous language is in various stages of becoming extinct.”

Mr. Fontaine said there are many facets to reconciliation, but it is a process that has to engage all Canadians.

“The process of reconciliation has to be based on the truths,” he said. “So that means Canadians have to learn their history. Canadians have to be taught the true history of the country… if we don’t we will never, ever achieve true reconciliation and we’ll be forever involved in butting heads.”

At the end of the presentation, President Levy announced that Professor Mahoney and Mr. Fontaine will work to develop a course based on their presentation. The course, which will be open to the public starting in the fall, will play an important role in educating Canadians about truth and reconciliation and help build recognition and respect for the First Peoples and their proper place in the Canadian narrative.

“In that way, we play our role in truth and reconciliation, and the role that we can [play] best, which is the educator… I hope when people look in on this and they learn from both of you, that they find themselves better people.”

Published on March 3, 2022.