A B.C. Indigenous leader who advised Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the contents of the landmark 2008 government residential schools apology has said that Canadians must not succumb to black and white thinking about the schools’ legacy.
Despite his opposition to the forced assimilation and the abuse that occurred at many schools (which he endured himself when he attended a residential school), Robert (“Bob”) Joseph – the author of the best-selling book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act – cautioned Canadians to avoid letting the controversy about residential schools pit Canadians against one another, especially if we truly want to achieve reconciliation.
A few years ago, embattled Ontario Senator Lynn Beyak had an “ally” in Robert Joseph. Beyak – if one recalls – got into hot water for suggesting that the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report should include many more positive experiences from school attendees. Senator Beyak was publicly ridiculed, and her career suffered as she was kicked off the Senate committee on Aboriginal affairs.
Joseph – a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia – informed a journalist back then that he would like to speak with Beyak to get her perspectives. Joseph was quick to say she should not be silenced. In 2017, he told the Vancouver Sun that “I think (Beyak) has a voice we need to reach out to. It might give us ideas about developing relationships with people no matter what camps they’re in.”
This is a far cry from the strident rhetoric displayed by many non-Indigenous and Indigenous leaders and politicians, many of whom were quick to demonize her. There were widespread calls for her removal, which is a serious and uncommon move for the appointed Senate.
As someone who attended a residential school himself, Joseph had stated that he felt it was unfortunate that Canadians had fallen into “black and white” thinking over the residential schools. Given that 150,000 children had attended the schools between 1883 and 1996 clearly, not all their experiences would be the same.
Joseph attended the Anglican Church-run St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia, which was opened in 1894 and closed in 1974 and was later demolished. Joseph said that he suffered abuse at the school leading to personal problems, including an addiction to alcohol, but he regrets how the school issue has become so divisive among Canadians.
This dualistic thinking, he cautioned, is not serving Indigenous- non-Indigenous reconciliation well. While he acknowledged the forced assimilation in some schools, it is not fair to paint all non-Indigenous staff as bad people. He had his own fond memories of many people at the school he attended.
In speaking to the Vancouver Sun, he said this about those people who worked at St. Michael’s: “I think about them and wonder where they are and, if I had a chance to talk to them, I would like to thank them for their service and their kindness.”
In fact, he went on to say that he knows of Indigenous leaders now who credit the system with honing their skills.
Joseph has done well for himself. He characterized himself as being the “town drunk” earlier in his life, but now he is heading Reconciliation Canada, an organization for educating Canadians about the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy reached out to Reconciliation Canada but was unable to arrange an interview with Joseph before this article went to press.
Moreover, Joseph is recognized as one of the last remaining fluent speakers of the Kwakwaka’wakw language. With close to 200 Indigenous communities in British Columbia, there are many languages in that province that are threatened with extinction with only a handful of fluent speakers of each language.
His life seems to be a testament to the resilience many Indigenous peoples have in preserving their language and culture despite some of the experience they endured. In recognition of his interest and fluency in his tongue, Joseph was invited to teach at the First Nations Languages Program at the University of British Columbia.
Joseph is no stranger to accolades for his outstanding achievements. He has been awarded the Order of British Columbia and he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of British Columbia, as well as an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Vancouver School of Theology. He has also been an associate professor at Royal Roads University and a guest lecturer at several other post-secondary institutions.
On the ground, Chief Joseph has dedicated much of his career to advancing communications between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. Joseph is the founder and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., an Indigenous public relations firm.
Joseph’s life has been a “rag to riches” story of one rising from poverty, attending residential school, to considerable accomplishment in British Columbia.
Again, in speaking to the Vancouver Sun, he felt that we must be careful in how we go about reconciling with each other.
“Canadians now see the wreckage caused by the residential schools in the past and they are rightfully wondering how are we Canadians going to find a way forward. I wouldn’t want to have a reconciliation that simply balances the ledger and still has hatred afterwards. That would be tragic; that would be same old, same old.”
If we are not careful, Chief Joseph’s worries will come true.
Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy where he writes on Indigenous and natural resource policy issues. www.fcpp.org.