First Nations reconciliation guide arrives at a timely moment

B. C. Catholic [Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia]

June 24, 2021

By Agnieszka Ruck

Recent developments at an unmarked gravesite near a former residential school in B.C. have prompted many questions about certain pieces of Canadian history and what work can be done to make amends.

Less than one month before word of this gravesite hit the news, the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice released a resource aiming to help guide some of those conversations. Listening to Indigenous Voices launched in English April 28 and French May 4.

“Many people deplore the lack of references to Indigenous Peoples in the history taught in Canadian schools. And still others are looking for ways to become true allies,” wrote Nicole O’Bomsawin, Abenaki activist and anthropologist, in the foreword.

She calls this new resource “an indispensable tool” for people who want to “make a difference today in building bridges across ignorance and racism.”

Listening to Indigenous Voices is a study guide created for small group or classroom study and includes 11 structured sessions with information to read, video links, discussion questions, and project ideas. As the title implies, it takes its cues from personal testimonies and cultural stories of First Nations people.

The guide invites participants to gaze at colourful traditional artwork, maps, and timelines, and read about aspects of Indigenous culture and teachings. It also shares Indigenous perspectives on treaties and a timeline of colonization and resistance.

It addresses issues of clean drinking water, welfare, illness, racism, violence, and wages affecting First Nations people in Canada today and historically, as well as past sins linked to residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and various Canadian laws including an act in 1872 that excluded Indigenous people (and Chinese Canadians) from voting.

Sections that handle subjects such as sexual abuse or violence are marked with a trigger warning.

The guide describes residential schools as “cultural genocide” perpetuated against First Nations people and quotes statistics from the Truth and Reconciliation process. It has been estimated that 3,200 children died in residential schools between 1869 and 1965, although TRC chair Murray Sinclair has estimated the actual number could be closer to 6,000.

The guide also addresses the Doctrine of Discovery and the phrase terra nullius (Latin for uninhabited land) and how those concepts were used to dispossess Indigenous people from land they lived on.

Syilx Okanagan author and artist Jeannette Armstrong offers some insight into how her people think of the concept of land.

“In our language, the word for our bodies contains the word land,” Armstrong writes. “Thus, in my mind, every time I say that word and I refer to myself, I realize that I am from the land.”

This mindset requires “a way of interacting with each other that is respectful to the land and respectful to each other … We live on the land and we use the land and, in so doing, we impact the land: we can destroy it, or we can love the land and it can love us back.”

The second-last session offers some ways non-Indigenous people can become “allies” with their Indigenous neighbours. It suggests recognizing First Nations people as experts of their own histories, establishing relationships, supporting Indigenous-led action without trying to take control of it, listening, learning, leaving selfish motives behind, and speaking up against racism, among other things.

Educator Nikki Sanchez (who is of Pipil, Maya, Irish, and Scottish background) writes that while the history of relations between First Nations people and colonizers is not the fault of people living today, “it absolutely is your responsibility.”

“What happened – what has been done – is not your fault, but where we find ourselves here together – whether we are Indigenous people, whether we’re Settler people, whether we’re somewhere in between – is work we all need to pick up.”

With 203 First Nations communities living in B.C. today, getting to know our neighbours and gleaning some knowledge about their ways of life and how the past has affected today’s realities is only natural.

“There is much work to be done, or should I say bannock to be kneaded,” writes O’Bomsawin, “and we’ll all have to work at it together.”

Listening to Indigenous Voices was released by religious publisher Novalis with endorsements from TRC commissioner Marie Wilson and Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina. For more information visit