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Interview with Chief Robert Joseph: A pathway to healing and reconciliation

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Chief Robert Joseph, Reconciliation Canada

Chief Robert Joseph, O.B.C, O.C., is a Gwawaenuk First Nation hereditary chief, peace-builder, and the founder and ambassador of Reconciliation Canada. For the last 60 years, he has been advocating across Canada and the world for reconciliation.

Throughout his career, Chief Joseph has undertaken a number of impressive roles, some of which he still holds today. These roles include being the Special Advisor to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), sitting on the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council, a Peace and Reconciliation Ambassador with the Interreligious Federation for World Peace, and the Chairman of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation. However, Chief Joseph describes his current – and primary – role as promoting reconciliation between all Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “We’ve been struggling hard to make it a good place for everybody. There are pockets of poverty that exist in different places. Different races facing challenges of discrimination and hatred,” he explains.

Chief Joseph’s involvement in the reconciliation movement comes back to his early life as a survivor of the residential school system. He has dedicated the last 30 years to the issue and was involved in the 2008 apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to residential school survivors and Indigenous Canadians. It was his role as Special Advisor to the TRC that transformed his mindset on reconciliation. The TRC conducted six national hearings between 2010 – 2014, providing residential school survivors the opportunity to share their stories and experiences. Chief Joseph shares that whilst this is just one part of Canada’s reconciliation story, the best part is that Indigenous people and their relationship with the rest of Canada began to heal. He remarks, “We began to think that reconciliation was a better way forward than being in constant conflict ever since the newcomers came. There’s been a lot of excitement in Canada about the potential we now have as a result of the Reconciliation Movement.”

Reconciliation Canada

Reconciliation Canada is an Indigenous-led organisation, born from Chief Joseph’s dream of revitalising the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through honest dialogue and transformative experiences. The organisation actively works with multi-faith and multi-cultural communities to understand the meaning of reconciliation across all cultures.

Ultimately, it all began with a ‘Walk for Reconciliation’ – a milestone event Chief Joseph coordinated with people from all walks of life walking together for reconciliation. This dream was achieved on June 11, 2009. Chief Joseph highlights this as the most rewarding moment in his career, recalling the hope he felt seeing 70,000 people, of “all the colours of the rainbow”, walking through an area where generations of Indigenous people lived and died in abject poverty and marginalisation. He shares that this event was the first time he ever saw true humanity – where in spite of all of their differences, people came together to acknowledge the need for reconciliation. It instilled in him that all the reconciliation movement needs is “a process that allows people to engage with each other, have dialogue and create understanding”. He describes this realisation as the very first discovery Reconciliation Canada made.

Community at the heart of reconciliation

“I don’t think reconciliation would sustain itself without local government and community people,” Chief Joseph states passionately. However, whilst he recognises the critical role government, at all levels, plays in implementing change, he considers community the backbone of progress. He deems reconciliation ‘a mind-changing process’, which would not simply be reduced to politics. “In Reconciliation Canada, we recognised this really early. Our contention for reconciliation is that it’s not just for Indigenous people, it’s for all people,” he explains, adding, “All of us need to be engaged in reconciliation. Otherwise, it’s simply political reconciliation, money reconciliation, land reconciliation, and there’s not a heart that changes.”

First Nation woman at a Canadian reconciliation event
Credit: Larisa Sviridova on Stock

This message may at first appear to cast local government’s role in reconciliation to the side, however, anyone who works in local government also knows community is at the heart of everything. Whilst Chief Joseph condemns the act of reconciliation becoming a political football, he advocates the immense power community holds, and who can better uplift and support a local community than local government. Chief Joseph believes it’s local government’s role to foster a united community, which has the means and support to achieve reconciliation.

How to make an impact as a local leader?

Local government looking to advocate for reconciliation in their community require strong leaders. Chief Joseph believes perseverance and trust are two attributes leaders in this movement need, however also notes the importance of accepting the diversity of opinion in this space. He anecdotally shares, “What’s funny is even the people in the movement have their own arguments and disagreements.” Although the ambition is to find harmony and understanding, Chief Joseph says there are valuable lessons in these disagreements, “We have to understand that as human beings, we’re so different and diverse that it’s hard to want to be completely homogenised in some way.” He notes how he, as a leader in the movement, is not an expert – perhaps many of us would beg to differ – but states that’s ‘the marvel of reconciliation’. Expanding, “We don’t have to be experts. We come to the table, we offer the best we’ve got, and it’s good enough.”

The perpetual pursuit of reconciliation

Chief Joseph considers himself both a realist and an optimist when it comes to the reconciliation movement. He acknowledges popularity and progress in the movement may ebb and flow, and that he may not always have the answers, but refuses to let this deter him. Rather, he claims the perpetual nature of reconciliation powers him. “I never ever think that if I’m rejected or my ideas aren’t believed that it’s the end of the world. The sun’s still gonna rise tomorrow. There’ll be other people picking up the cause and carrying on the work, and sometimes ideas that we think are great might happen down the road,” he reflects.

One fundamental that Chief Joseph argues is that reconciliation should never be concluded, and this inspires him to never stop working. During his proudest career moment, the Walk for Reconciliation, guest speaker Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke about how every generation has to struggle for its own freedom. In this moment Joseph realised the importance of perseverance when it comes to reconciliation – that all those involved in the movement are not reaching for the golden chalice because there’s no such thing. He champions that the movement is about striving to be all the things we hope to be that we never seem to actually achieve. “That’s what reconciliation is for me. And I’m okay with it. I think that every generation should struggle for its own freedom.”

Chief Robert Joseph, Reconciliation Canada

Trust breeds trust

Trust is the second quality Chief Joseph believes local leaders need to support reconciliation in their community – a core principle we also advocate for at LGIU to achieve a stronger local government sector and democracy.

Chief Joseph attributes a large amount of his success and influential career in the reconciliation movement to the simple concept of trust and creating a profile that’s trusted. He remarks, “People trust me. I don’t know why, but I think it comes down to the fact that, first of all, I never ever pretend to be anybody I’m not. I know exactly what my limits are and I speak within them. And I believe in people, and I myself trust easily.” He stresses that leaders who want to create trust and reconciliation within their communities need to be trustful. Just like with love, he outlines, “If you want to love others, then you better love yourself. Start with that and then a higher kind of love will blossom.”

He explains that once leaders create a profile that’s trusted, then they are able to generate trust in their communities. Chief Joseph explains the best way to do this is by establishing opportunities for everyone in a community to come together to have respectful dialogue, even when topics are contentious. He claims that when leaders “grow that process, almost as a separate sort of underlying process, you develop that trust”, and from that trust comes connection and progress in reconciliation.

Driving and sustaining reconciliation through local governance

Chief Joseph considers there to be two major challenges holding the reconciliation movement back; the first being the continual failure to recognise the wealth of knowledge Indigenous people hold; and the second, “the pending demise of philanthropic excitement for reconciliation” a.k.a the “popularity” of the movement.

Leading by example

Whilst Chief Joseph has many messages for local leaders and their communities when it comes to progressing reconciliation, despite these challenges, the one way he urges local government make their mark is by endorsing reconciliation as a core value in their council. He professes that including reconciliation in councils’ mission statements and core values places it as a central focus in their daily course of work. Arguing that this one small change will have flow-on influences into planning processes, community engagement and community values. “The idea is that they’re gonna be thinking about it and it’s real. When we reconcile, we’re gonna be better, and when they reconcile, they’re gonna be better,” he summarises.

Celebrating success and sharing lessons

Chief Joseph does raise a particular concern around the oversight at a local, national and international level to highlight all the beautiful aspects of reconciliation going on, “Nobody collates exactly how many people are taking part, who they are, where they are, but it’s happening,” he goes on to add, “I wish we had a table where we could go and look for the best results and practices, learn together and grow even more.” Perhaps a critical gap for government to pursue.

These reflections will force local government to review who isn’t being offered a seat at the table and whether the diversity on the table is representative of the diversity in their communities. Establishing greater diversity in the planning and engagement space on a community level will not only promote the progression of reconciliation but will elevate innovation for other complex issues.

Two indigenous males talking to each other at Toronto city Hall’s
Credit:Eli Unger on iStock

Navigating shifting tides

Furthermore, a council which is underpinned by reconciliation as a core value is a simple and effective way of maintaining focus in an era where the “popularity” of reconciliation is changing. However, despite recognising a shift in focus away from reconciliation, Chief Joseph still believes in the perpetual nature of reconciliation.

“I don’t think you can stop it by the way. Not fully. Reconciliation is such a powerful force, it’ll always go on.”

Keeping it simple

To Chief Robert Joseph, reconciliation does not need to be complex. It is not about politics or money. It’s about human-level connection, relationships and the idea that everyone belongs. He sees reconciliation as an immovable force that will continue no matter what. “The idea of belonging and sharing is just too powerful a force to throw away once you’ve had a taste of it,” he remarks.

Advocating that it will forever be an ongoing process that changes and adapts because people and circumstances will forever change and adapt. Ultimately, though, Chief Joseph doesn’t overcomplicate reconciliation. He sees it simply as a process of breaking down walls and bridging the human divide, through open, honest communication.

He summarises, “We have the possibility to leave a legacy of human endeavour that’s so much more together than it has ever been in Canada, and we so need it, like everywhere else in the world. Things are breaking down and falling apart. We’ve just got to do what we can.”

If you would like to learn more from Chief Robert Joseph, check out his new book Namwayut – We Are All One: A Pathway to Reconciliation, which Reconciliation Canada is working to integrate into Canada’s school curriculum.



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