Vancouver, July 21, 2013
Chief Robert Joseph has the immense calm of someone with deep reserves of compassion and the boyish grin of someone confident that, at heart, all but a very few of us are people of goodwill.
Now 74, the hereditary chief of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation was only six when he taken from home in Kingcome Inlet and was dropped off at a residential school in Alert Bay. Eleven years later, he emerged, as so many children did, as a full-blown alcoholic with demons that took years to tame.
From the crucible of harm, anger, self-destructive behaviour and depression, Joseph has learned that hope is the only way forward.
It’s impossible to argue with Joseph’s simple premise: We have only two choices as Canadians. We can accept the situation as it is with aboriginal people trailing other Canadians in every significant health, educational and economic statistic or we can “step up to the idea of hope and actively promote reconciliation.”
For years, Joseph has been one of the strongest and most pervasive voices calling for justice and recognition of the suffering inflicted by the federal government’s policy of forcing aboriginal children into residential schools.
More importantly, in the past year, he has sparked an overwhelming surge of interest in reconciliation between First Nations’ people and other Canadians.
When we met recently, the news of the day was that the Canadian government had sanctioned nutritional experiments on aboriginal children in the residential schools including withholding food, milk and denying them access to needed dental care.
It shocked many other Canadians. But Joseph chose to regard it as another important step forward, as proof that the stories shared by residential school survivors are true.
“The whole idea of reconciliation calls for truth telling. We need full disclosure … it all needs to be made public now, not bit by bit. As we are all moving toward reconciliation, we all need to discover the truth and sometimes it will be shocking and tragic. But it will lead to a deeper understanding.”
Joseph is the catalyst and the face of a nascent group called Reconciliation Canada. But the group and its goals are very much shared with his daughter, Karen Joseph.
In April 2012, father and daughter got the support of aboriginal groups to support their plan for a reconciliation walk on Sept. 22, 2013 and their goal of attracting 50,000 people to draw attention to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Vancouver.
Within weeks, the walk morphed into something larger.
Reconciliation Canada was established and began organizing local workshops. Mayor Gregor Robertson attended one and, as a result, Vancouver has declared the week preceding the walk as Reconciliation Week. Vancity committed $500,000.
Others signed on to support the walk and other events planned for the week of Sept. 16. Among them are leaders in the Sikh, Japanese, Chinese and Jewish communities along with the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church, who have urged their members to treat the Sunday morning walk as a sacred time and place that could replace going to their usual Sunday services.
The province’s four biggest universities have told students that they will not be penalized for missing classes, if they are attending any of the reconciliation sessions or events during the week of Sept. 16.
School kids have produced 50,000 tiles with images and messages of reconciliation that will be handed out to all the participants.
What the Josephs have catalyzed goes well beyond a supporting role to the scheduled hearings of the government-funded Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It is, in Robert Joseph’s words, “sort of monumental” and it’s grown beyond the walk to include other events including an all-nations canoe gathering in False Creek on Sept. 17 and workshops.
Neither father nor daughter is knows why the idea of reconciliation has struck such a chord here.
Certainly, the idea of truth and reconciliation is not new. Over the past two decades, more than 30 countries have used it including post-apartheid South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda and post-Pinochet Chile.
Canada’s own commission has been in the works since 2008 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official apology to the estimated 75,000 survivors of residential schools. The commission was derailed six months after it was formed; personality clashes led to the resignation of the chairman. It was nearly a year before the $60-million commission got back on track.
Robert Joseph says it may be partly because of the Olympics that the response has been so overwhelming. People came together and enjoyed themselves. And among its legacies are a number of community leaders who have signed on to help Reconciliation Canada.
Climate change and the economic downturn have made people realizing how inextricably their fates are linked and that survival depends on everyone pulling together, says Karen Joseph.
But she also believes the perception of Canada in the world and Canadians’ own perception of Canada has drifted away from the long-held notion of Canadians being peace-loving leaders in terms of human rights and equality.
“We lost our way because we took all that for granted. I think we forgot our responsibility as citizens to contribute to that kind of a country,” she says. “But I believe people really want to live up to that idea of what we are as a nation.”
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, he said: “However, painful the experience, the wounds must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And the balm must be poured on them so that they can heal.”
In Vancouver, Robert and Karen Joseph have formulated that balm in the hope that it can be replicated across the country.
BY DAPHNE BRAMHAM, VANCOUVER SUN COLUMNIST