Jesse Wente discusses the future relationship between Canada and its Indigenous peoples
“If we truly want [conciliation] to succeed, keep in mind that we’re not doing this just for us. We don’t plant the tree expecting to enjoy the shade; we plant it so that others who you will never meet can enjoy the shade,” said Jesse Wente, an Indigenous activist and broadcaster for the CBC.
On Nov. 19, Wente gave a talk on looking towards the future of Canada by going beyond reconciliation. Wente was invited to speak at Mount Allison for the President’s Speakers Series.
The Crabtree auditorium was packed with people, many of whom were unable to find seats. Wente discussed Canada’s need for conciliation, the importance of honouring the treaties, and not being afraid to give sovereignty back to Indigenous peoples.
Wente made it clear he was not going to talk about reconciliation. He also stated that the talk was not about moving on from the past. “This is not a lecture about Indigenous peoples ‘getting over it,’ as if centuries of ongoing colonialism can be reduced to a subject pronoun,” he said. “There can be a sense that looking to the future means moving beyond the past, but as you will see I believe you must truly understand the past in order to actually map a future.”
“One of my challenges with the word ‘reconciliation,’ just as a word, is that it suggests we’re repairing a once-functioning relationship. I’m not sure that’s what we’re really doing. I would suggest that we’ve never really had a functioning relationship so what we need is conciliation, the building of that functioning relationship, not repairing what was there,” Wente said.
Sandy MacIver, director of the Jon Royce Centre for Business Studies and chair of the President’s Speaker Series, agreed with Wente’s point on the importance of relationships. “Relationships are so fundamental to what we can learn from our Indigenous people,” he said.
Wente said that modern day treaties exist because Canada exists, but this was not true of the treaties made between Indigenous peoples and colonists. “These were our ancestors imagining what this place could look like, imagining what our relationship should be before Canada became a thing and got in the way of these relationships.… If we look to the spirit of those agreements … we see a very different portrait of a Canadian future than the one of the present we now live in,” he said.
Wente acknowledged that these treaties have never been honoured. “The only ways [the treaties] are upheld is through Indigenous resistance.… It requires physical resistance to enforce treaty rights. If you think about that, does Canada require that of any other nations it enters into treaties with now? In order for us to keep up our end of the bargain that they must physically resist us? No, we do not; that’s how wars start,” he said.
Wente went on to discuss giving sovereignty back to Indigenous peoples. “I think that the uncomfortableness in these discussions is that discussing Indigenous sovereignty inherently undermines Canadian sovereignty.… [But] it actually reaffirms what the true identity of Canada would be if we had lived up to [these treaties],” he said.
Wente urged the audience not to be afraid of the possibility of change. “Canada is very young and thus, because it’s still a baby, there’s ample time for it for mature, for us to guide it as it begins to take its first steps, as it begins to walk and gets prepared to run, and we shouldn’t be afraid of this. Were our ancestors afraid to sign these agreements? They weren’t. Are we any less than they were? We are not, we are humans just like them. Humans, hopefully, with just a little bit more knowledge about what has happened so that we can make different choices as we move forward,” he said.
At the end of the talk, audience members were able to ask Wente questions. A faculty member asked him what he thinks Canada will look like if conciliation takes place.
Wente said that what Canada is truly reconciling is that people suffered. “People are still suffering so that others may be comfortable, so that others can speak their native language on lands where it is foreign.… Children suffered and died so that Canada could be. And children are still suffering and still dying so that Canada can remain,” he said.
“Comfort is an incredible thing and Canadians love comfort. There’s nothing better than a La-Z-Boy and a Tim Hortons Double-Double while watching the hockey game on the television. I appreciate it, I love all those things too, but what I also say to Canadians is that I also live in discomfort every single day. I think all First Nations and Indigenous people across Canada live in discomfort every day. That’s why we don’t need reconciliation – we’re already experts at it,” Wente said.
“I think if we had done this 150 years ago Canada doesn’t look anything like it does now, and if we do this work for 150 years it won’t look anything like this either,” Wente added.
Charlotte Roberts, a first-year international relations student, said she agreed with Wente’s vision for Canada’s future. “I think [the future] definitely comes with a lot more respect and that will come with time,” she said. “I think it comes with giving some power back to the people who were here before us.… Decisions about Indigenous people and the way they live their lives shouldn’t be decided by people other than them. I think that that’s what we’ll see in the future.”
Roberts also said she was pleased by how many people attended the talk. “I think that shows something – not necessarily great progress, but it shows that people care,” she said.
Wente mentioned that he has travelled across Canada over the past two years giving similar speeches. “What I hear from Canadians most often is, ‘I didn’t know about the residential schools. I didn’t know about the smallpox blankets. I didn’t know, I didn’t know,’ and of course, the truth is they didn’t want you to know and that’s why you don’t know. But ignorance is only an excuse once and Canada has had its once,” he said.