20 Books that will Change How You Think about Canada

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

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, if we are to be critics of reconciliation we also cannot overlook the labour — taken up primarily by survivors and their families — that made reconciliation in Canada something we could even 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 should be able manufacture, trade, and profit from. Nor is it a Canadian act of goodwill that can be manipulated to act as a demonstration of Canada’s moral superiority in the international state order.

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.

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

This post documents the discourse of reconciliation via 20 books that engage the concept–and the contexts it 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 asks what is next. After residential schools, after the TRC, after almost countless apologies from heads of state and church. 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)


1) Star Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe, Burning in this Midnight Dream

A deeply scouring poetic account of the residential school experience, and a deeply important indictment of colonialism in Canada.

Brick Books

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, has used 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.

Read more on about Halfe’s foundational contributions to residential school literature here.

2) Bob Joseph, 21 Things You Might Not Know About the Indian Act

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act that Joseph has written about are: (1) the imposition of elected councils; (2) denial of status to women; (3) establishment of reserves; (4) voluntary and forced enfranchisement; (5) expropriation of reserve lands; (6) giving Indians Christian names; (7) establishment of a permit system to sell farm produce; prohibitions on (8) ammunition and (9) liquor sales; (10) declaration of cultural ceremonies as illegal; (11) the imposition of the pass system and (12) residential schools; (13) banning of speaking our languages; (14) banning of western Indians from appearing in shows; (15) leasing of lands to Settlers; (16) banning from organizing political associations; (17) prohibition on raising funds to hire lawyers; (18) prohibition on entering pool halls; (19) prohibition on Indian students from practicing traditional ceremonies; and (20) the barring of the right to vote; as well as (21) how the Indian Act was a piece of legislation designed to subjugate an entire people.

Anishnabek News

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, Colten Boushie was shot dead by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley. Using colonial and socio-political narratives that underlie white rural settler life, the authors position the death of Boushie and trial of Stanley in relation to Indigenous histories and experiences in Saskatchewan. They point to the Stanley case as just one instance of Indigenous peoples? presence being seen as a threat to settler colonial security, then used to sanction the exclusion, violent treatment, and death of Indigenous peoples and communities.

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

Part memoir and part manifesto, Unreconciled is a stirring call to arms to put truth over the flawed concept of reconciliation, and to build a new, respectful relationship between the nation of Canada and Indigenous peoples.

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

In the discourse of reconciliation, recognition speaks precisely to the reciprocal processes of exchange that guarantee the subjective experience of the other — in this case, the experience of historical injustice as repressed or erased by the state and testified to by residential school survivors. As such, Coulthard’s critique cuts deeply into the debates around apology, forgiveness, and redress.. It is particularly incisive insofar as recognition puts the burden of proof — in a TRC that does not include perpetrator testimony — squarely on the backs of residential school survivors who are charged with making legible the violent history of residential schools.

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

What is at stake in The Marrow Thieve rather, a reconciliation of Truths: of 1) knowing as certain the genocide inflicted by 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 echo of 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” in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reconciliation here is established as the domain of Indigenous peoples and the resurgence with which they will rebuild in the wake of the apocalypse.

David Gaertner

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

Manuel cautions all of us to be careful in what, if any, Federal or Provincial government legislation regarding Indigenous affairs we support. Anything that comes out of these jurisdictions often infringes on the sovereignty of Indigenous people and their particular nations. He proposes finding a way to unite people at the tribal level and create a method of governing that encompasses the tribal/family authority of hereditary Chiefs over federally funded territory and elected Indian Act councillors and Band administrators. Any change cannot be ‘top down’ it must be grassroots and ‘bottom up’ leadership. —Truth and Reconciliation Community Bobcaygeon

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

“My left hand touched my face where my tears ran hot and wet. I held my wet finger to my mother’s right cheek and ran a wet trail where her tears should have been. We cried together” (83). By sharing this emotional response, Larry subdues the urgency of his own immediate pain, diffusing it within a collective grieving process that privileges solidarity, interpersonal commitment, and communal responsibility over the primacy of individual convalescence. In fact, Larry here acknowledges that true healing for the individual demands the strength and well-being of the group. 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.
–Sam McKegney, “Beautiful Hunters with Strong Medicine”

Set in Fort Simmer, a fictional community in the Northwest Territories based on Richard Van Camp’s hometown of Fort Smith, The Lesser Blessed follows a Dogrib teenager named Larry through his high school experience.

CBC Books

9) David Gaertner, The Theatre of Regret: Literature, Art and the Politics of Reconciliation in 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.

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 violence

Christine Anonuevo

10) Dian Million, Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights

Focusing on Canada and drawing comparisons with the United States and Australia, Million brings a genealogical understanding of trauma against a historical filter. Illustrating how Indigenous people are positioned differently in Canada, Australia, and the United States in their articulation of trauma, the author particularly addresses the violence against women as a language within a greater politic. The book introduces an Indigenous feminist critique of this violence against the medicalized framework of addressing trauma and looks to the larger goals of decolonization. Noting the influence of humanitarian psychiatry, Million goes on to confront the implications of simply dismissing Indigenous healing and storytelling traditions. —Elissa Washuta

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

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.

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

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