Nov. 29, 2021

Imagining Renewal event Nov. 30 celebrates 4 years of ii’ taa’poh’to’p, UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy

Keynote speaker Chief Robert Joseph looks to path forward from mass-grave discoveries, talks education’s role in reconciliation
Chief Robert Joseph
Chief Robert Joseph

When asked to reflect on the last year, which saw the rediscovery of mass graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who did not survive Canada’s former residential schools system, Chief Robert Joseph saw room for hope amid the tragedy.

“When the news broke about the unmarked graves, of course everybody was horrified and shocked and in disbelief. There was some rage and anger, confusion, and it took a little while for this discovery of those unmarked graves to really sink in,” says Chief Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, officer of the Order of Canada, and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.

“And even though Indigenous people felt the impact, we all lost a little as Canadians because of what happened in Canada where we allowed racism and hatred to prevail. We even legalized it through the Indian Act and other means.”  

A survivor of more than a decade in the residential school system who later served as executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, Chief Joseph saw how such devastating news fuelled a renewed interest in reconciliation as Canadians came together in grief.

“We’re all human beings. It doesn’t matter what race we’re in, when little children have been treated so wrongly and disrespected, I’m sure that there were people of every race in Canada who are Canadians who understood the idea that we needed to mourn,” he says.

The result is that Canadians across the country have an even more heightened awareness of the history of residential schools and the impacts that continue through to this day. But even more exciting is that there’s a huge wave of Canadians who are interested in engaging in reconciliation.

On Nov. 30, the University of Calgary will celebrate four years since the launch of its Indigenous Strategy, ii’ taa’poh’to’p, with an event titled Imagining Renewal. As its keynote speaker, Chief Joseph has a vision for the future, saying Canadians who are going on the journey of reconciliation with Indigenous people will have to “learn to create reconciliation as a core value.

“It means that we live it every day, breathe it every day … to the extent that it’s not just an exercise,” he says. “It’s who we are, how we see each other, hear each other. It determines the kind of relationships we have to each other and encourages us to celebrate each other, to hold each other up, to support each other.”

Chief Joseph says that future is already happening as we speak, “and we just have to continue individually and collectively to keep taking every incremental step necessary, because reconciliation is a journey and absolutely every step is important. We’ve already achieved something with that every step, so it’s going to be a way in which we can find inspiration and continue to be committed to a future together.”

Educational institutions' role is 'pivotal'

He says the role of educational institutions is “absolutely pivotal” to progressing reconciliation in Canada.

“I think it was education that brought little Indigenous children to their tragic fate in residential schools,” Chief Joseph says. “And now, in this time, we have wonderful institutions like the University of Calgary and others who have become much more aware and sensitive to our colonial history. That so much wrong took place and so many people were harmed.” 

And now, he says, it’s time for those institutions to use their voice for good.

“Universities like UCalgary are in a position — because they’re well-respected and they’re institutions that have been around a long time, who have knowledge, skill sets — to educate the rest of us who don’t have the same opportunity,” says Chief Joseph.

He notes UCalgary has established a reputation for advancing reconciliation. For example, it played a significant role in the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement when it co-hosted a conference with the Assembly of First Nations in March 2004. And, of course, it launched its own comprehensive Indigenous Strategy four years ago.

“As soon as we begin to get all of our educational institutions in Canada speaking as a voice for common decency and humanity, then you’re probably achieving what you should be achieving.”

Register to attend the celebration

University students, staff, faculty and the greater community are welcome to join the virtual Imagining Renewal celebration on Nov. 30 from 12 to 1 p.m. Register now to reserve your spot.

Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, O.B.C., is a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and is one of the last few speakers of the Kwakwaka’wakw language. He has dedicated his life to bridging the differences brought about by intolerance, lack of understanding and racism at home and abroad.

He is the Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council, an Honorary Witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and has served as the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. As chairman of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation and the Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation with the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IFWP), Chief Joseph has sat with the leaders of South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and Washington, D.C. to learn from and share his understanding of faith, hope, healing and reconciliation.