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 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 silence. 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.Joanne Barker
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.
The Reconciliation Manifesto offer[s] strength and solidarity to Indigenous readers, and a generous guide to ally-ship for non-Indigenous readers. For the latter, these books will unsettle, but to engage in ally-ship is to commit to being unsettled — all the time.”Carleigh Baker
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.
By recognizing the pain of another as his own pain and the healing of another as a source of his own strength, Larry thus inhabits a dynamic kinship role and partakes in the responsibilities that role requires.
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. Bring 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.
Million’s determination to address dangers on both sides, to avoid binaristic traps, and her care not to dismiss the routes she critiques, require a sophistication and a nimbleness that she is able to supply.Jennifer Henderson
11) Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Redress
Japanese Canadian redress has At its very base, the success of Japanese Canadian redress is linked to the critique and reconstitution of Canadian citizenship, which until the Redress Agreement was contingent on race and empowered by the War Measures Act. Writing to the neoliberal turn of the new international morality, Miki argues that the “call for redress could be of ‘use’ in giving value to Canadian citizenship,” which is to say that redress represented an economic upshot for Canada in a global economy defining itself against realpolitik and (back) towards the morality and compassion derived out of the Nuremburg trials [emphasis added].
The language of citizenship, implicit to Miki’s use of the gift, is directly connected to the War Measures Act, which allowed the colonial government to strip citizens of their rights arbitrarily and with no more justification than race. In their move towards redress, the NAJC was banking on a definition of compensation that would allow all Canadians to consider the value of national belonging.
Put simply, in return for reparations, then, Japanese Canadian Redress gave the State back a more rigorous and ethical definition of citizenship, one based in nationality rather than race. This exchange gave Japanese Canadians a larger stake in redress because it contributed to all Canadians’ sense of citizenship, and thus the safety and belonging provided by Canadian sovereignty. Understanding how the Canadian history of redress is informed by citizenship provides key insight into the state’s inability to hold Indigenous sovereignty in the same hand as reconciliation.
12) Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress
Truth and reconciliation commissions and official governmental apologies continue to surface worldwide as mechanisms for coming to terms with human rights violations and social atrocities. As the first scholarly collection to explore the intersections and differences between a range of redress cases that have emerged in Canada in recent decades, Reconciling Canada provides readers with the contexts for understanding the phenomenon of reconciliation as it has played out in this multicultural settler state. In this volume, leading scholars in the humanities and social sciences relate contemporary political and social efforts to redress wrongs to the fraught history of government relations with Indigenous and diasporic populations. –UofT Press
This serious engagement with the challenges posed by the culture of redress in Canada is an essential resource for anyone seeking to understand our history and for imagining alternative futures. A milestone in Canadian interdisciplinary scholarship, this book repays the effort it demands. If Northrop Frye was correct in diagnosing the central Canadian question as “where is here?” then this book shows “here” to be a complex place in which healing and hope are yet to be achieved but can be imagined differently.Diana Brydon
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
Drawing attention to the ways in which creative practices are essential to the health, well-being, and healing of Indigenous peoples, The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being addresses the effects of artistic endeavour on the “good life”, or mino-pimatisiwin in Cree, which can be described as the balanced interconnection of physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. In this interdisciplinary collection, Indigenous knowledges inform an approach to health as a wider set of relations that are central to well-being, wherein artistic expression furthers cultural continuity and resilience, community connection, and kinship to push back against forces of fracture and disruption imposed by colonialism. —UofM Press
There is a genuinely beautiful life-force at work in this text: it’s artful and creative, readable and forceful. The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being offers important contributions to knowledge and conversations about Indigenous health and the humanities in times and space of contemporary coloniality.Sarah de Leeuw
14) Sam McKegney, The Burden of Peace: Reimagining Indigenous Masculinities Through Story
Can a critical examination of Indigenous masculinities be an honour song—one that celebrates rather than pathologizes; one that seeks diversity and strength; one that overturns heteropatriarchy without centering settler colonialism? Can a critical examination of Indigenous masculinities even be creative, inclusive, erotic?
Carrying the Burden of Peaceanswers affirmatively. Countering the perception that “masculinity” has been so contaminated as to be irredeemable, the book explores Indigenous literary art for understandings of masculinity that exceed the impoverished inheritance of colonialism. —UofR Press
Carrying the Burden of Peace: Reimagining Indigenous Masculinities through Story makes a meaningful contribution to the field of Indigenous masculinity studies, within which the author has already played an important role. Work such as this not only intervenes in ongoing discussions about what ‘reconciliation’ looks like in the North American context but also calls for further examination of the non-Indigenous masculinities that haunt the margins of this study.Josh Cerretti
15) Nicola I. Campbell, Shi-shi-etko
This is a moving story set in Canada about the practice of removing Native children from their villages and sending them to residential schools to learn the English language and culture. An introduction explains that governments believed Native people were ignorant and made laws to educate their children. Shi-shi-etko counts down her last four days before going away. She tries to memorize everything about her home–tall grass swaying to the rhythm of the breeze, determined mosquitoes, working bumblebees. There is a family party to say good-bye. Her father takes her out in a canoe and implores her to remember the trees, the water, and the mountains, and her grandmother gives her a small bag made of deer hide in which to keep her memories. The vivid, digital illustrations rely on a red palette, evoking not only the land but also the sorrow of the situation and the hope upon which the story ultimately ends. This contemplative narrative will help children see how Native people have been treated in both Canada and the United States. A good choice to enhance units on Native North American cultures.
–Linda M. Kenton, San Rafael Public Library, CA
16) Michelle Good, 5 Little Indians
With compassion and insight, Five Little Indians chronicles the desperate quest of these residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and, ultimately, find a way forward.HarperCollins
17) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The Reconciliation volume establishes guiding principles and a framework for advancing reconciliation in Canadian society. It identifies the challenges that must be overcome if reconciliation is to ²ourish in the twenty-first century and high-lights the critical role that Aboriginal peoples’ cultures, histories, and laws must play in the reconciliation process. The volume demonstrates that although apologies from Canada and the churches were important symbolic events, reconciliation also requires concrete measures to repair the damaged relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown and to establish respectful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
–Introduction to Vol. 1
18) Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back
Many promote Reconciliation as a new way for Canada to relate to Indigenous Peoples. In Dancing on Our Turtle s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence activist, editor, and educator Leanne Simpson asserts reconciliation must be grounded in political resurgence and must support the regeneration of Indigenous languages, oral cultures, and traditions of governance. –ARP Books
This work is alive with insight and creativity. Simpson’s words dance through the heart of Anishinaabe resurgence with hope, grace and beauty. It is a must read for everyone interested in re-energizing Indigenous movement throughout Turtle Island.John Borrows
19) Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School
One of the first books published to deal with the phenomenon of residential schools in Canada, Resistance and Renewal is a disturbing collection of Native perspectives on the Kamloops Indian Residential School(KIRS) in the British Columbia interior. Interviews with thirteen Natives, all former residents of KIRS, form the nucleus of the book, a frank depiction of school life, and a telling account of the system’s oppressive environment which sought to stifle Native culture.Arsenal Pulp Press
While searching for someone to release the text, Haig-Brown turned to Randy Fred, residential school survivor and co-founder of Theytus books and Pemmican publishing, and asked him to write an introduction for her manuscript. After reading Haig-Brown’s text, Fred was astonished at the way in which the general public still refused to acknowledge the reality of residential schools, even when these stories were sanctioned by the academy and a reputable researcher: “I was appalled, when first meeting with Celia to discuss publishing this book, to learn that some people who had read the manuscript believed some of it not to be true; the nuns couldn’t have been that mean to those children.”[i] What Fred points to in his socio-historical analysis of Haig’s work, is a problem of reception, in which, the call, while being vociferously articulated, cannot — or will not — be heard by a settler community that understands the state as a benevolent, “civilizing,” political structure.
20) Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
To understand the stories of the seven lost students who are the subjects of this book, the seven “fallen feathers”, you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding, were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence. And you must understand how the government of Canada has historically underfunded education and health services for Indigenous children, providing consistently lower levels of support than for non-Indigenous kids, and how it continues to do so to this day. The white face of prosperity built its own society as the red face powerlessly stood and watched. –Tanya Talaga
[W]here Seven Fallen Feathers truly shines is in Talaga’s intimate retellings of what families experience when a loved one goes missing, from filing a missing-persons report with police, to the long and brutal investigation process, to the final visit in the coroner’s office. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of an indifferent and often callous system . . . Seven Fallen Feathers is a must-read for all Canadians. It shows us where we came from, where we’re at, and what we need to do to make the country a better place for us all.The Walrus