Half a millennium since first contact between Aboriginal peoples and European explorers, 141 years since the British North America Act, and a quarter century since repatriation of the Constitution, the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples continues to be challenging.

According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, during 500 years of coexistence, the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples evolved from cooperation and partnership, to paternalism and domination by non-Aboriginal people and governments. Recent attempts at achieving fair and equitable legal, cultural and social arrangements have included legislation, numerous treaties, studies, legal cases and a Royal Commission – and protests and civil disobedience.

South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have tackled similar issues from their own unique perspectives. Common elements, such as truth and reconciliation commissions, apologies by government leaders and other reconciliation processes have recently been adopted in the Canadian context. These reconciliatory approaches appear to have been successful elsewhere and reflect values such as truth, justice, healing and equity achieved through respect, inclusiveness, consultation and mutual support.

Most recently in Canada, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established on June 1, 2008, under the leadership of Justice Harry S. LaForme. On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement of apology in the House of Commons to former students of Indian residential schools. Then, just as hope for the Commission was growing, Justice LaForme resigned on October 20.

A group of 70 people consisting of approximately 50 percent First Nations, 25 percent federal, provincial and municipal officials, and 25 percent academics, met over the first two days in June at Queen’s University to discuss and make recommendations on reconciliation issues and processes in Canada.

Conference co-host, the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI), identified the theme of The First Nations Conference on Reconciliation Processes, as an essential part of building a strong foundation for future relationships between parties affected by the troubled history of First Nations communities in Canada. FNTI has partnered with the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University to establish a set of graduate courses in public policy and administration targeted at Aboriginal learners, as well as others interested in the topic. These are part of the Queen’s part-time Professional Master of Public Administration program.

The conference involved a scholarly dialogue among the participants and took an important step toward developing a policy framework for reconciliation processes reflecting the Canadian reality. Participants heard from Ovide Mercredi, Chief of the Misipawistik Cree Nation and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who expressed frustration but also hope for the future. His keynote address challenged all to a process of reconciliation that engages us as equal partners in building consensus toward a common future.

The conference adopted a unique process of engagement. The Open Space methodology, in keeping with First Nations’ traditions, allowed for an open discussion while exploring a number of issues. In Open Space, participants develop their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme, which allows people from diverse backgrounds to address complex topics.

Led by a facilitator, participants formed a large circle and suggested topics for discussion that were important to them. These topics were then put into a schedule of 30-minute intervals. Participants chose the topics that they wished to discuss, broke off into smaller groups, and then moved among the groups to engage in other discussions. The large circle then re-formed and group leaders reported on the deliberations around each issue. As a result, relationships were established between participants and a commitment to make progress was palpable.

A broad range of specific issues were identified:     
How do non-Aboriginal people become allies? For non-Aboriginal people to become allies with Aboriginal people in the reconciliation process, it will require truthful, historical knowledge, meaningful communication, inclusive and respectful dialogue, challenging of stereotypes, and finding a universal reason to build bridges.Educating public servants on Aboriginal issues: buy-in from senior management, building core competencies of public service providers, continuous learning, and exposure to Aboriginal communities are key elements in educating public servants on Aboriginal issues.Aboriginal consultation vs. “public consultation/engagement:” Aboriginal consultation must be understood as different from “public consultation/engagement.” Respect, patience, acknowledgement and inclusiveness in consultation can be incorporated into a better structure for decision-making. Education and training would benefit participants in the process.First Nations/Canada/Ontario agreements on collaborative public services: the goals of the stakeholders involved in collaborative public services were identified as being similar, and could be more effectively achieved through ongoing consultation, partnership building, and building capacity in Aboriginal communities. The 2004 Canada-Ontario agreement on collaboration in the delivery of public service and the 2007 health care agreement with Northern Ontario First Nations were identified as possible models/trends for coordination of services delivery.

The conference provided a forum for First Nations, public servants and academics to participate in an open exchange of ideas on reconciliation, and to contribute to recommendations developed as a result of the Open Spaces sessions. By bringing together these actors and interested parties, participants were able to explore new partnerships and collaborative networks for future work in this area. A permanent conference website features video clips of Chief Ovide Mercredi’s address and presentations by other speakers, as well as a report on the deliberations.

A decade ago, then Chief Justice Antonio Lamer stated, “Ultimately, it is through negotiated settlements, with good faith and give-and-take on all sides, reinforced by the judgments of this Court, that the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown [will occur]. Let us face it, we are all here to stay.”  

The processes being developed in Canada integrate ideas about reparations, truth-telling, healing and restorative justice. Today, and in the future, reconciliation will play an important role in sharing the story of First Nations’ experiences. It is in building trust and understanding between First Nations communities and the rest of the population that reconciliation will happen.

Establishing a respectful engaging process to reconcile the differences and conflicts that exist is an ongoing challenge for Canada’s public services – a challenge all Canadians dare not lose.

Kim Phillips is with the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. Vic Pakalnis is director, special projects, with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. For Ovide Mercredi’s speech, see www.tvo.org/TVOsites/WebObjects/TvoMicrosite.woa?video12404; for more on the conference: www.queensu.ca/sps/first_nations_conference.