“The Canadian Roots Exchange operates trips and hosts conferences across Canada for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth. Founded in 2009, the CRE provides an opportunity for youth to learn and discuss the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous peoples around the country.”
-Canadian Roots youth participant on the Truth and Reconciliation Process
Three years ago, I had the privilege to end up on the pilot run of the Canadian Roots Exchange. It was ten days of Aboriginal Issues 101 on a yellow bus; we hit up two cities and four reserves across Ontario, talked to many elders, a few chiefs and did about a hundred smudges. Three years later, my partner is one of the Aboriginal participants from that first trip. Last June, my journey continued when we attended the youth conference hosted by Canadian Roots alongside of the Truth and Reconciliation in Toronto.
As a non-Aborignal man, I am often asked by my friends what the outcome of this journey has been for me and what it promises for the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aborignal people in Canada. To answer this question, I find it helps to start at the beginning and explain why I signed up for the first Canadian Roots trip.
I was raised in Calgary, in a family that inculcated the importance of justice and protecting the interests of all people. My great-grandparents immigrated to Alberta at the beginning of the last century. We benefitted from the land. Yet, from a young age, my parents taught me that this had come with a price; we benefited from economic and political institutions that had excluded Indigenous peoples as part of their development. This is a truth taught to most non-Aboriginals in a historical frame, yet it was not taught to me how this unequal relationship had played into contemporary life. It was this link that I sought to understand, mending a gap in my knowledge about my own roots and the forces that brought me to where I was as a young person. It is for this reason that I sought out Canadian Roots on their first trip and attended the TRC conference last June.
The conference offered the kind of contemporary knowledge that was difficult to access within a grade school curriculum. The stories of residential school survivors and the families of survivors demonstrated a living reality, one of staring down discriminatory institutions with century-old origins. These stories rippled through the conference, in the words of Lee Maracle, who told of holding sweats in secret, away from the eyes of Indian Agents. They echoed in the experiences of young people, who had witnessed parents live with crimes of abuse. These are stories that did not occur in a void, perpetrated by a few racist non-Aborignal people. They were part of a larger society that has placed Aboriginal people on unequal footing, not just a few decades ago but today as well.
As I walked home with my partner, we spoke of what brought non-Aboriginal people to the TRC. He mentioned an elder who had been asked the same question. The elder answered that a common tie to the land and the stories it held drew non-Aboriginal people. The question is not whether non-Aboriginal people will hear these stories. Aboriginal nations are the fastest growing in Canada, both culturally and politically. The question is whether non-Aboriginal people will understand their place within these stories and learn that reconciliation is a not a one-sided process. Instead, it requires the work of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, both acting to repair a relationship.