“Reconciliation to me, means that we walk together on a path.”
These were the words, spoken by an elder in Rat Portage First Nation, that have remained with me throughout my work in northwestern Ontario. I visited Rat Portage for an Elders Forum put on by a small grassroots initiative called Reconciliation Kenora. The words were in response to a general question about what the term “reconciliation” actually meant. It stayed with me because I was amazed at the faith and hope that permeated those words. They weren’t cynical, angry or distraught. The same elder had just, moments earlier, spoken of his experience at residential schools and the damage it did to him and his family. So, when the question was posed I expected outright rage, and not measured reason
Over the past few weeks I have visited the small communities surrounding Thunder Bay, travelled on circuit court with a judge serving fly-in First Nation communities and sat in on the inquest for the Seven Youth deaths in Thunder Bay. There were many times, throughout this summer where I felt very angry. Angry that every courthouse I stopped at was filled with indigenous offenders. Angry that poor living conditions in the fly-in communities were just a fact of life. Angry that children were moving away from home to go to school and ending up dead in a river. But my anger in seeing injustice cannot be compared with the anger of experiencing it. And someone that had experienced serious injustice was actually open to “walking together on a path” with everyone involved. So, I began to view these areas of social justice that irked me not as a broken system but a tumultuous path. A path that leads in different directions depending on the relationship of the travelers. If the travelers are simply shouting at one another the path will just be wide circle, returning back to the same point time after time. But if there is some understanding if not collegiality between the two the path may actually lead to somewhere of benefit for both.
There are many things in the way justice is administered in the north that I may have issue with. But the relationships I have built with people from across the justice sector demonstrate a desire within them to also “walk together on a path”. Court staff that want to see justice education carried out in as many communities as possible to help better police-youth interactions; judges that travel thousands of kilometer every week on small planes to ensure access to justice; and lawyers working diligently to ensure that when crisis happens—broken people have an advocate. For as long as I viewed the problems of inequity and social justice in the north through a lens of systemic trouble—they seemed hopeless. When I began to reflect on the words of the elder and viewed the problems through the lens of a travelling path and relationships—there was hope.
System issues exist. But so do good people willing to work with us and walk with us to meaningful resolutions.
by Rohan George – OJEN Project Officer – University of Windsor, Faculty of Law, Social Justice Fellow