Reconciliation also is not an Indigenous problem. It is about creating a relationship of mutual respect as was promised in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and in the assurances given at, and reflected in, the many Treaties signed between the Crown and Canada’s Indigenous peoples, most since Confederation.
All people in Canada, including newcomers, have a role in this relationship-building process. While we may not all share a past connected to the residential schools, we share a future. We must all call for an ongoing process of reconciliation, regardless of political affiliation, cultural background, or personal history
– Chief Justice Murray Sinclair
Thinking Critically about Reconciliation
We are at a point now, in the wake of the TRC of Canada, at which critiques of apology and reconciliation are easy to find and produce. Many of those critiques are pointed and impactful.
However, in order to be critical of reconciliation we cannot overlook the labour — taken up primarily by survivors and their families — that made reconciliation something that Canadians and Indigenous peoples can even begin to imagine.
If reconciliation is possible in a colonial state, it cannot be the possession of that state or a register of the dominant discourse. While it may often appear differently, “reconciliation” is not a state good — which is to say it is not a product that the colonial government can manufacture, trade, or profit from. Nor can it be a performance of goodwill that can be manipulated to demonstrate moral superiority.
Reconciliation in Canada was established by Indigenous peoples and survivors of residential schools and, as such, is subject to the sovereignty and self-determination of those communities.
Grappling with reconciliation in Canada means understanding it’s problematic uses and deployments while simultaneously respecting the Indigenous labour behind it–labour that opened up the space for change.
Within the twin frameworks of labour and understanding there is so much work yet to be done. A 2021 study by the Yellowhead Institute shows that only 11 of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action have been implemented since the report was released in 2015. The authors of that report put the dilemma bluntly;
To the question, “When will it be enough?” we say: it will be enough when the systems of oppression no longer exist. We will arrive at reconciliation when Indigenous peoples in this country experience, at the bare minimum, a living standard that reflects their visions of healthy and prosperous communities.Eva Jewell & Ian Mosby
What Should I Know About Reconciliation in Canada?
This post offers a reading list for those asking, “what should I know about reconciliation in Canada”? It does so via 20 books about reconciliation in Canada–and the contexts reconciliation is inextricably intertwined with–from a variety or perspectives and genres.
Composed for Canada Day 2022, and adopted for the 2022 papal visit, this list is an invitation for readers to consider what apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation, mean in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The question that ties these books together is, “what is next?”
After residential schools, after the TRC, after almost countless apologies from heads of state and church. What is next for Indigenous-settler relations in Canada?
With the future of our relations stretching out ahead of us, how do we grapple with our shared identity as Canadians at a moment when “virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered” (Honouring the Truth, vi). What is next and how do we get there from here?
What Books on Reconciliation Should I Read?
The books listed below all play a foundational role in my research and writing on reconciliation. They don’t cover everything you need to know (how could they?), but they provide a good starting point.
All of the books here are linked to an Amazon affiliate list, meaning I receive a small portion of each sale. Proceeds are donated to the Indian Residential School Survivours Societyhttps://www.irsss.ca/.
1) Star Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe, Burning in this Midnight Dream
In 1945, Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s point was that language was incapable of capturing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Yet, poetry is perhaps the only written medium that can trace the outline of the unsayable.
Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe breathes life into the unsayable. For more than twenty-five years, Halfe, who is Cree, from the Saddle Lake reserve and Treaty Six territory, uses Cree poetics to delicately craft voice out of the unheard; out of the ongoing violence of Canada’s colonial history and out of the repression administered in Canadian residential schools. There are many books in this list that will give you the history of residential schools. Burning In This Midnight Dream, is perhaps the only one that communicates the affect.
Read more on about Halfe’s foundational contributions to residential school literature here.
Burning in this Midnight Dream is a A deeply scouring poetic account of the residential school experience, and a deeply important indictment of colonialism in Canada. –Brick Books
2) Bob Joseph, 21 Things You Might Not Know About the Indian Act
In order for Canadians to grapple with reconciliation, we must first come to terms with Canada’s legacies of juridical power and violence. Canadians have long rested on a shared assumption that, compared to the United States, we are a benevolent nation. The Indian Act, which served as a model for South African apartheid, puts the lie to that idea.
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act addresses, amongst other things, how Canadian law led to denial of status to women; forced enfranchisement; the declaration of cultural ceremonies as illegal; the imposition of the pass system, banning of speaking our languages; prohibition on raising funds to hire lawyers; prohibition on entering pool halls; prohibition on Indian students from practicing traditional ceremonies; and the barring of the right to vote. The Indian Act is a piece of legislation designed to subjugate an entire people.
“Bob Joseph reveals the hold this paternalistic act, with its roots in the 1800s, still has on the lives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada in the twenty-first century. This straightforward book is an invaluable resource. There is much for non-Indigenous people to learn and to do. But equally important, there is much to unlearn and to undo. The time is right for this book.” –Shelagh Rogers
3) Dallas Hunt & Gina Starblanket, Storying Violence : Unraveling Colonial Narratives in the Stanley Trial
In August of 2016, Gerald Stanley shot and killed Colten Boushie. In Storying Violence, Dallas Hunt and Gina Starblanket unpack the colonial narratives that underpin the structural implications of actions. Contextualizing the event in relation to Indigenous experiences in Saskatchewan, the authors illustrate how Stanley’s actions are just one instance of a larger narrative that positions Indigenous peoples as a threat to settler existence. Storying Violence makes plain that reconciliation is much more than settlers surfacing Indigenous culture in the Canadian narrative—it is examining and dismantling the stories that continue dehumanize Indigenous peoples.
“In Storying Violence, co-authors Dallas Hunt and Gina Starblanket add this warning: If we leave stories unexamined, they may take monstrous forms that will come back to harm us. As Indigenous people know, not all monsters on the prairies are created equal nor do they harm equally.” –Darcy Lindberg
4) Jesse Wente, Unreconciled
Jesse Wente’s Unreconciled offers robust criticism of Canada’s approach to reconciliation while formulating new ways to think about Indigenous-settler relations outside of the colonial framework. What makes this book stand out are the ways in which Wente reads reconciliation through sports, pop culture, and his own family history. Wente is an extraordinary writer and the humour and personal stories presented in this book quickly draw readers into an intimate and vulnerable critique of reconciliation as a nation state project.
“Mahsi cho, Jesse Wente, for illuminating the biggest issue facing Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people: Canada fears Indigenous people because Canada is terrified of our power. Each language class, culture camp, graduation ceremony, each Supreme Court Ruling, each Treaty (that wasn’t forged), each feast and naming ceremony… is part of the incredible Reclaiming happening right now. Please read this book. It’s an infuriating read but a necessary one.”
–Richard Van Camp
5) Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks
Glen Coulthard’s inaugural book, Red Skin, White Masks played a significant role in changing the way the world understood reconciliation, at least as it came out of Chile and South Africa. Read through the politics of recognition, that is the reciprocal exchanges that guarantee subjectivity, Coulthard argues that reconciliation is always already underscored by the colonial gaze. Given that that the TRC of Canada was “victim-centred”and did not include perpetrator testimony, Coulthard’s argument helps to clarify why reconciliation, which implies relationship, is a flawed system.
“Glen Coulthard is able to bring a remarkably distinctive and provocative look at issues of power and opposition relevant to anyone concerned with what constitutes and perpetuates imperialist state formations and what indigenous alternatives offer in regards to freedom.”
6) Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves
While not a book about reconciliation per se, the Marrow Thieves is a novel based on the return of residential in a dystopic future. Written following the TRC it can therefore be read as a critique of reconciliation—given that, in Dimaline’s dystopia, what returns is precisely what reconciliation pretends to redress. That said, Dimaline crafts an Indigenous articulation of reconciliation here as well.
What is at stake in The Marrow Thieves is a reconciliation of Truths: of 1) knowing as certain the genocide inflicted by the new residential schools while at the same time 2) being held in the gaze of a loved one who was forced into those schools. It is a reconciliation built on love and care and grief and mourning. But, perhaps most importantly, the reconciliation that Dimaline ends her novel with is a reconciliation of surviours. Outside of the colonial gaze, outside of the multifarious meanings that have been layered onto the word “reconciliation” following the TRC, reconciliation in The Marrow Thieves is established as the domain of Indigenous peoples and the resurgence with which they will rebuild in the wake of the ongoing apocalypse.
If you are a teacher looking to use The Marrow Thieves in your classroom, you’ll find a sample assignment here.
7) Arthur Manuel & Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson, The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy
Many Canadians have yet to consider reconciliation in the terms of Indigenous sovereignty. Arthur Manuel makes plain the ways in which provincial and federal jurisdiction that upholds the Indian Act infringes on the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. He makes a clear case governance that encompasses the authority of hereditary chiefs and advances a reconciliation framework that is mobilized from the bottom up.
A robust understanding of the TRC of Canada must take into account governance systems grounded in nation-specific law and governance. Reconciliation is, of course, tied to issues of recognition and representation, but, within Canada, it must also unsettle Canadian sovereignty. Manuel’s book is a cornerstone in this thinking.
Read about reconciliation and the places it butts up against Canada’s culture of apology here.
8) Richard Van Camp, The Lesser Blessed
Reconciliation requires Indigenous storytelling and there is no better storyteller than Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ writer Richard Van Camp. The Lesser Blessed tells the story of Larry Sole, a Dogrib teenager living in a small northern town. Larry has lost much of his memory after a violent accident, but he loves reading, storytelling, and Iron Maiden. Van Camp’s novel addresses residential schools, which impact Larry’s life significantly, but it doesn’t centre damage.
The Lesser Blessed is, to borrow from Eve Tuck, a desire-centered narrative grounded in love, wit, and teenage energy. Van Camp welcomes readers into the complex, beautiful, and sometimes contradictory world of a Dogrib youth. If reconciliation is, in part, about experiencing the richness of human existence, then this novel is the place to start.
9) David Gaertner, The Theatre of Regret: Literature, Art and the Politics of Reconciliation in Canada
Theatre of Regret traces “reconciliation” out of World War II, through the Cold War and into settler states like Australia and Canada. We live in a new era of state morality. For the first time, Western governments are compelled to confront their histories, not as inheritors of grand narratives of struggle, perseverance, and conquest, but, as Edward Said once put it, as “representatives of a culture and even a race of accused crimes — crimes of violence, crimes of suppression, crimes of conscience.”
Between the time of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Chile in 1991 and the time of this writing, there have been over thirty TRCs implemented across the globe, or more than one commission per year. On a superficial level, TRCs change the ways in which governments perform their relationship to state history, but these performances of morality do not necessarily amount in material change for the survivors of historical injustice. Detached from its historical, geographical, and cultural contexts, reconciliation is precarious at best and injurious at worst. Via historical analysis layered with storytelling, The Theatre of Regret illustrates the volatility of reconciliation, apology and forgiveness in the new moral economy.
The Theatre of Regret is a timely book that implores Canadian settlers to look at the uncomfortable truth of the narratives we tell ourselves: the truth of residential schools and the truth of ongoing settler colonialism and violenceChristine Anonuevo
10) Dian Million, Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights
Inasmuch as reconciliation is equated with healing, the therapeutic lens we apply to Indigenous settler relations is by nature political. Dian Million makes the case that the de facto therapy model applied in settler states is a product of neoliberalism and therefore antithetical to Indigenous self-determination.
Bringing narrative and analysis together from Canada, the U.S. and Australia, Million applies an Indigenous feminist critique to Western medical discourse and illustrates how Indigenous healing methods contribute to self-determination and decolonization. If you are interested in learning about reconciliation from trauma-informed perspectives, Therapeutic Nations is a must-read.
11) Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Redress
In this first-hand account of the Japanese Canadian redress process, Miki argues that the movement’s success is directly linked to the critique and reconstruction of Canadian citizenship. By framing redress as an economic advantage for Canada in a shifting global economy, the author highlights the importance and complexities of compensation in any reconciliation process.
Miki argues that by returning to a definition of citizenship based on nationality rather than race, Japanese Canadian Redress gave Canada a more rigorous and ethical definition of citizenship in exchange for reparations.
This groundbreaking work sheds light on the relationship between redress and citizenship in Canada, and the implications of Canada’s history of redress in relation to the more contemporary TRC. It is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complex history of redress and its role in shaping Canadian citizenship.
12) Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress
Reconciling Canada is a groundbreaking scholarly collection that explores the intersections and differences between various redress cases in Canada, providing essential context for understanding the phenomenon of reconciliation in this multicultural settler state. From apology and testimony to grief and mourning, Henderson and Wakeham bring together leading humanities and social sciences scholars to discuss the nuances of the contemporary political and social reconciliation efforts to redress wrongs with Indigenous and diasporic populations.
As truth and reconciliation commissions and official governmental apologies continue to surface worldwide, Reconciling Canada is an essential resource for anyone looking to better understand the history of redress and reconciliation. Henderson and Wakeham deliver a milestone in Canadian interdisciplinary scholarship revealing Canada as a complex place where healing and truth-telling can be imagined differently.
Read more about the fundamental differences between Canada’s TRC and its historical predecessors here.
13) Nancy Van Styvendale, J.D. McDougall, Robert Henry, Robert Alexander Innes (eds), The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being
The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being is a collection of essays that engages reconciliation by highlighting the vital role of creative practices in promoting the health, well-being, and healing of Indigenous peoples. The book highlights how art can serve as a means of cultural continuity, resilience, and resistance in the face of the harm inflicted by colonialism. Contributing authors draw from Indigenous knowledges and perspectives to offer a holistic approach to health that recognizes the interconnectedness of physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being, which are all interconnected and vital to achieving a good life or mino-pimatisiwin in Cree.
Through essays focusing on issues such as material culture and imaging otherwise, the collection demonstrates how art can help restore balance, connection, and healing in Indigenous communities through various examples of artful and creative practices. The contributions of authors like Karyn Recollet, Louise Halfe, Jo-Ann Episkinew, and Beverly Diamond provide unique perspectives and insights that contribute to a better understanding of the intersection of Indigenous health, artistic expression, and cultural continuity.
14) Sam McKegney, The Burden of Peace: Reimagining Indigenous Masculinities Through Story
Carrying the Burden of Peace: Reimagining Indigenous Masculinities through Story is a thought-provoking and necessary addition to the ongoing discussions on Indigenous masculinity studies, contextualized within discourses of reconciliation and decolonization. Sam McKegney challenges the idea that masculinity is irredeemable by exploring the diverse and complex understandings of masculinity within Indigenous literary art, moving beyond the limitations of colonialism.
Carrying the Burden of Peace is a creative, inclusive, and erotic celebration that challenges the heteropatriarchal norms and centres the Indigenous perspective. The author seeks to promote diversity and strength while also overturning the colonial legacy carried in the notion of masculinity. McKegney offers an incredibly valuable contribution to the field of Indigenous masculinity studies that adds nuance and complexity to critical examinations of masculinity and its relationship to settler colonialism.
15) Nicola I. Campbell, Shi-shi-etko
Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell offers a glimpse into the practice of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes and sending them to residential schools.
The story follows Shi-shi-etko, a young girl who is preparing to leave her home and attend one such school. The narrative is set in the days leading up to her departure, as she tries to hold on to her memories of her homeland and her people.
The book offers a powerful lesson about the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous people, especially children. By presenting a fictionalized account of a real and painful experience, Campbell has created a story that is accessible for young readers, while also educating them about the injustices that have been committed against Indigenous peoples. The book is a testament to the resilience of Indigenous people in the face of adversity and a reminder of the importance of remembering and honoring their experiences.
16) Michelle Good, 5 Little Indians
Michelle Good’s debut novel, 5 Little Indians, is a powerful and deeply moving story about the impact of Canada’s residential school system on Indigenous children and their families. Set in the 1960s and 70s, the book follows the lives of five former residential school students as they navigate the challenges of adulthood, including poverty, addiction, and the lasting trauma of their experiences.
The novel offers a nuanced engagement with the intergenerational effects of residential schools on Indigenous families. The characters are all grappling with the legacy of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences in the system, leading to cycles of abuse, addiction, and trauma. Good doesn’t shy away from showing the painful consequences of these cycles, but she also offers a message of hope and resilience through her representation of the five characters. 5 Little Indians provides nuanced perspectives on the ongoing impact of Canada’s residential school system, adding depth and complexity to the TRC.
17) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is a comprehensive and essential document for anyone seeking to understand reconciliation in the Canadian context. The report documents the findings of the Commission’s six-year investigation into the residential school system and its impact on Indigenous peoples, as well as providing recommendations for moving forward.
What sets the report apart is its thoroughness and attention to detail. The Commission interviewed over 6,700 survivors of residential schools, as well as family members, community leaders, and experts in various fields. The report includes extensive testimony from these individuals, as well as historical documents and analysis of government policies and practices.
In addition to documenting the harms of the residential school system, the report also offers a roadmap for reconciliation. The Commission’s 94 Calls to Action provide a series of concrete steps that can be taken to address the legacy of the schools and move towards a more just and equitable future for Indigenous peoples in Canada. The report also includes a discussion of the principles of reconciliation and the importance of listening to and learning from Indigenous voices.
18) Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back
Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of Indigenous resurgence and the possibilities for reconciliation in the context of Canadian colonialism. Through a series of essays and reflections, Simpson explores the ways in which Indigenous peoples are reclaiming their language, culture, and sovereignty
The book offers a nuanced and critical perspective on the concept of reconciliation. Simpson acknowledges the importance of reconciliation as a goal, but also recognizes the limitations and challenges of the concept. She argues that true reconciliation can only be achieved through a deep engagement with Indigenous cultures and worldviews, and a commitment to addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism and oppression.
Simpson emphasizes the importance of collective action and community-building in the process of Indigenous resurgence and reconciliation. She celebrates the efforts of Indigenous peoples to reclaim their languages and cultures, and calls on non-Indigenous people to support these efforts and engage in meaningful dialogue and action towards reconciliation.
19) Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School
Resistance and Renewal is on this list because of the emphasis Haig-Brown puts on the voices and experiences of the survivors themselves. Haig-Brown allows these individuals to tell their own stories, in their own words, and the result is a deeply personal and emotionally resonant account of the harms of the residential school system. The book also provides a historical and social context for these experiences, exploring the broader policies and practices that led to the creation and maintenance of the schools.
This book documents the ways in which children resisted the attempts to erase their cultures and languages, and the ways in which they have carried these traditions forward in the face of ongoing challenges. The book also provides a nuanced and critical perspective on the concept of reconciliation, arguing that true reconciliation can only be achieved through a deep engagement with Indigenous cultures and communities, and a commitment to addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism and oppression.
Brown’s writing is both empathetic and analytical, and her insights are both illuminating and challenging. The book provides a valuable perspective on the complex and difficult issues of colonialism, oppression, and resistance, and offers hope for a more just and equitable future.
20) Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
Tanya Talaga’s “Seven Fallen Feathers” is a powerful exploration of the lives and deaths of seven Indigenous high school students in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Through extensive research and interviews with the families of the deceased, Talaga sheds light on the ongoing crisis of violence and neglect faced by Indigenous youth in Canada, particularly those who are forced to leave their homes and communities to attend school in distant cities.
Talaga documents the ways in which government policies and institutional racism have created an environment in which Indigenous youth are vulnerable to violence and exploitation, and the ways in which these issues are interconnected with broader issues of colonialism and oppression. She documents the ways in which these families have fought for justice and accountability, and the ways in which they have come together to support one another in the face of unimaginable loss.
By centering Indigenous perspectives and experiences, Talaga’s book contributes to a broader movement towards reconciliation and decolonization in Canada.