Ry Moran is the founding director of Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, the repository for the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2015. In that position, he faces a weighty task: To guide Canada’s journey to righting a horrific wrong. For decades, Indigenous children in Canada were placed in residential schools, where their culture was systematically stripped of them in a process of forced assimilation. Now, through the TRC, the country is working to reconcile these acts. But as Moran puts it, before reconciliation must come truth. See the transcript of this video here

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As soon as he heard the news, Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief Paul Prosper’s heart began to race. A school bus, a grade school and a sign in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, the remote county on the east coast of Canada encircling Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s reserve, had been tagged with anti-Black and Indigenous racist slurs. Prosper’s heartbeat was anticipating terse interactions with parents, the school board and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not to mention the students. “You’re sort of walking into a hornet’s nest, you know, you’re bound to get stung,” he says.

But looking back now at the 2018 incident, a different detail stands out to him: a text message from Owen McCarron, warden of the County of Antigonish, who wrote: “I heard what has happened. This is completely unacceptable, it doesn’t reflect the attitudes of the vast majority of people and I’m here to support in any way I can,” Prosper recounts.

“That was sort of a moment for me. That indicated to me that somebody actually cared for us,” Prosper, who has since moved on from his role as Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief to become a Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says. Later, some members of the County of Antigonish council stood behind him at a school-wide debrief of the events. 

These are small gestures, but what they represent is revolutionary. Across Canada, hundreds of municipalities like Antigonish sit right next to First Nations communities with very little communication, let alone collaboration. While the Canadian government now touts a “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous Peoples, at the local level reconciliation is more of an afterthought. Municipalities often treat reserves as “blank spaces” as they develop around them and on the Nations’ traditional territories. For this and many other historical reasons, Indigenous communities like Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation report that racial divides are ever-present.

Antigonish County and Paqtnkek Joint Council
An Antigonish County and Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation joint council, part of a program designed to help longtime neighbors act like neighbors. Credit: County of Antigonish

But the united front that Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and the county of Antigonish presented that day did not come easily. For the past five years, they have benefitted from a unique country-wide program designed to help longtime neighbors like them become neighbors. The First Nation–Municipal Community Economic Development Initiative, known as CEDI, empowers municipal and First Nation leaders and their staff to, for once, sit down and talk as equals. 

CEDI is a partnership between the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers, known as Cando, which represents Indigenous communities in support of economic growth. Since 2013, 15 pairs — out of hundreds of requests — have taken part in the program that is in principle about joint economic development, but in reality more decolonization bootcamp. 

CEDI was born out of a tragically common juxtaposition in Canada. Municipalities across the country were investing millions in municipal water infrastructure. Meanwhile, according to an OECD report, it is estimated that “half of the water systems on First Nations reserves pose a medium or high health risk to their users.” 

“How could it be that the municipality has perfectly clean piped water, and across the street, if it’s a reserve, they could be living with a boil-water advisory? Where’s the breakdown?” Josh Regnier, a facilitator for the program, reflected on the program’s origins.

For Cando, the motivation to develop CEDI was pragmatic: over the years, funding for First Nations infrastructure and development from the federal government has eroded, generating an incentive to combine efforts regionally toward economic prosperity. “That, though, is easier said than done,” says Cando’s executive director Ray Wanuch.

Though it seems obvious that immediate neighbors should pool resources to share in water treatment plants or firefighting, it’s not that simple. In Canada, municipalities are products of the provinces, while First Nations have a direct relationship with the federal government. Although chiefs, mayors and councillors may share the same grocery stores, they have no obligation to work together.

The jurisdictional barriers, however, create a false sense of separation. The elephant in the room is that municipalities like the County of Antigonish across Canada have taken over Indigenous land. As Prosper points out, in the early 18th century Indigenous nations signed peace and friendship treaties with Great Britain to respectfully coexist. But in the centuries that followed, Indigenous Peoples were increasingly faced with racist policies aimed at eradicating their identities and taking their land. In many communities, the relics of this violence — such as the residential schools where children were forcibly assimilated — still stand in neighboring towns.

“Some of our communities have had very bad history and relationships with their surrounding municipal neighbors,” says Wanuch. 

That’s why the CEDI program doesn’t kick off talking logistics or finances — it starts with history. 

Credit: County of Antigonish

“There's an understanding that we are connected, that our success will only further success in the area surrounding us.”

In one of the key early exercises, each community’s council and staff, along with Indigenous elders, are asked to outline their own understanding of the region’s history through sticky notes on the wall. Regnier describes one regional partnership where the municipalities outlined a laundry list of infrastructure: town hall, school, fire hall. The First Nations, at their turn, outlined a much longer timeline of teachings, cultural history, and relationships and wars with other Nations. At the end of their timeline came a turning point, a nation-to-nation treaty signed with colonial governments, followed by a tight succession of painful events: the Indian Act defined Indigenous rights and identities, residential schools removed youth from their parents, the last fluent language-speaker passed. They were deeply offended that the treaty responsible for the existence of the municipalities, and the many examples of First Nation resiliency, were ignored.

From this groundwork, deeper conversations sprang up, like the question of who should have a voice in development decisions. With help from independent mediators and regular meetings over three years, the municipalities now include First Nations in development planning. “We should have been doing that all along,” said one participating mayor. “Better late than never.”

Collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities has never been more vital. 

Across the United States and Canada together, there are more than 1,200 federally recognized Indigenous communities. Urban centers are growing and sprawling closer to Indigenous reserves, 80 percent of which are less than 500 hectares in size (roughly 2.5 percent the size of Portland), limiting independent infrastructure. Meanwhile, challenges from homelessness to wildfires eschew borders and demand a regional response

The relationship between Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and the County of Antigonish shows what incremental steps toward reconciliation can accomplish.

In the 1960s, a section of the Trans-Canada Highway connecting Halifax and Cape Breton severed Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s reserve lands in two. And while they were guaranteed access in the early negotiations, the Nation was locked out from 200 hectares (500 acres) of its reserve lands. McCarron said it was an “eye-opener” to learn of this deep wound in early meetings. Despite being effectively landlocked, his Mi’kmaq neighbors were “resilient in their resolve to someday get access to that highway,” McCarron says. 

friendship accord
Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation’s Chief Paul Prosper and Antigonish County Warden Owen McCarron participate in a ceremony acknowledging the Mi’kmaq territory on which they all live. Credit: Richard Perry

Now they have. With a multimillion-dollar highway expansion in 2019 came “an opportunity to right a historic wrong,” says Prosper. Through negotiations with all levels of government, and support from CEDI, the Nation was able to recover access to its land with a highway interchange complete with a fuel depot, travel center and cardlock. 

In 2018, Prosper and McCarron signed a friendship accord in ceremony that acknowledges the Mi’kmaq territory on which they all live, and commits to regular joint council meetings. Now, they’re working towards a joint solar energy farm that will employ members of both communities. “There’s an understanding that we are connected, that our success will only further success in the area surrounding us,” says Prosper, adding there’s “a genuine feeling of congratulations” from the wider community. From his own conversations with the non-Indigenous community, McCarron agrees: “Attitudes are changing.”

Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation and Antigonish aren’t the only communities making progress. 

In Thunder Bay, where more than a third of Canada’s reported anti-Indigenous hate crimes took place in 2015, Fort William First Nation and the City of Thunder Bay found their own shared area of economic interest. The First Nation had a large piece of contaminated lands they couldn’t use. The city, on the other hand, had run out of land for industrial clients. So they came together, pitched the idea of an industrial park to funders and were able to secure the money needed to bring it to market.

industrial park
Fort William First Nation and the City of Thunder Bay came together to pitch the idea of an industrial park to funders. Credit: John Mason

Elsewhere, First Nations and municipalities from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories and the Atlantic are working together to build transit infrastructure, establish joint tourism initiatives and improve emergency management

And though they have every reason to turn inward in face of Covid-19, these relationships are proving their strength. The pandemic has revealed the lack of relationship between many municipalities and First Nations across Canada, as towns reopened without consulting their First Nation neighbors, many of which still have travel restrictions. In contrast, Antigonish and Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation released a joint statement in response to the pandemic in March, while in April, a regional district and First Nation in British Columbia built a joint economic recovery task force through video conference. In Manitoba, partners overcame a deep historical trauma to lobby governments and investors to reverse the closure of a local factory that would have eliminated roughly 250 jobs. As CEDI prepares to welcome another cohort in 2021, program managers say its primary funder, the federal government, is looking to adapt the model toward recovery from the pandemic.

Marissa Lawrence, senior program officer for CEDI, says the nine partnerships finishing the program have embraced video conferencing, but there’s no doubt Covid-19 presents challenges. “My personal opinion is that you can’t replace relationship-building face-to-face,” says Lawrence, noting that their current partners had spent one year together before the pandemic hit. 

As this crisis has us turning back to local economies, Lawrence says, these relationships are proving their worth. A resolve to come back to the table in the face of disruption may be harder to measure — but it’s an important marker of success. 

Chief Prosper has a similar measure: “If it appears to be uncomfortable, and you seem almost out of your place, then I think that’s a certain indicator that you’re doing something groundbreaking.” 

This story was produced by CBC q, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

Standing in front of an audience at last fall’s Toronto Biennial of Art, AA Bronson was nervous. As a member of the General Idea collective, founder of the NY Art Book Fair and a leading conceptual artist, the 74-year-old was no stranger to public performance — but this was different.

For the first time, Bronson was going to deliver his text A Public Apology to Siksika Nation the culmination of a five-year project he had been “hurtling towards” for the last seven decades. It was so essential that when he started it, he stopped making other art.

Two-spirit Blackfoot artist Adrian Stimson, clothed in ceremonial dress, was among those who had gathered, along with several Siksika elders, all of them survivors of Canada’s notoriously brutal residential schools — including the Old Sun Indian Residential School, which operated on the Siksika reserve until 1971.

Bronson — who was born Michael Tims — and Stimson have a lot in common. They’re both queer artists working in a range of media; they’re both known for groundbreaking performance art; they’re both recipients of Governor General’s Awards and other high honors.

But their history dates back to over a century ago to the Alberta plains where their ancestors were sworn enemies.

Stimson’s great-great-great-grandfather was Chief Old Sun, a renowned Blackfoot leader and reluctant signatory to Treaty 7, the 1877 agreement with the Canadian Crown that imposed the reserve system and removed most of the Siksika’s rights to their traditional lands.

“He was highly suspicious of the newcomers,” Stimson says in an interview with q host Tom Power. “He didn’t want to sign the treaty, but in the end he acquiesced. He was a bit of a rebel and a very fearless leader.”

AA Bronson. Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

Six years later, in 1883, Bronson’s great-grandfather, Rev. John William Tims, became the first Anglican missionary sent to the Siksika nation, where he was tasked with building the community’s first church and residential school.

As was the case across Canada, Indigenous children were taken from their parents and forced into residential schools where they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, creating profound intergenerational trauma that still ricochets through the community half a century after Old Sun closed. Many call it a cultural genocide.

“[Rev. Tims] took the children away from their parents, he forbade them to speak their own language or practice their own customs or wear their own clothes,” Bronson says of his ancestor. “And he did his best to destroy Siksika culture.”

In a bitter twist, the Siksika school was named after Stimson’s ancestor, Chief Old Sun.

“It’s ironic that his name would be used in an institution that was meant to kill the Indian in the child,” says Stimson, who himself suffered abuse at residential schools.

According to oral histories from both artists’ families, diphtheria and tuberculosis swept through the schools in 1895.

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    “Children were dying, and sadly, Reverend Tims would not allow those children to go home,” says Stimson. “So you can imagine the sadness and anger the parents felt.”

    An uprising followed, and the church and the school were burned to the ground. Siksika people warned Tims he should leave or he would be killed.

    For decades, Bronson wanted to confront this history in his art. The combination of his advancing age, growing public awareness of Indigenous issues and a call from the Canada Council for works that marked 150 years of Canadian history spurred him to move ahead.

    While various governments and religious groups have offered apologies, Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in the country’s jails and prisons, face racism in policing, and have higher rates of violence against women, poverty and infant mortality.

    residential school
    Children at the North Camp School on Blackfoot reserve in 1892. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives

    So when Bronson first approached the community about making an apology, they hesitated.

    “There’s the saying, ‘Walk the talk.’ And when apologies are given, often the walk afterwards is either nonexistent or very slow. So there is cynicism,” says Stimson, who took the idea to Siksika elders. Myrna Youngman, one of the elders, noted apologies were rare, and suggested they listen.

    “The cynicism went away at that point, and we decided that this is important,” remembered Stimson. “Let’s listen to him. He’s approaching us in the right way.”

    He invited Bronson, who stepped into his artistic alter ego Buffalo Boy — a wryly humorous and gender-fluid spin on Buffalo Bill — to the Siksika Nation for a special dinner.

    At the table, Stimson and several elders asked difficult questions about the nature of apologies, and the painful history between Rev. John William Tims and the Siksika people.

    “It’s really meaningful that you’re acknowledging what your grandfather did. He wasn’t made to do it. He did what he did and you’re acknowledging it, which means a lot,” says Youngman, pushing back tears, in an episode of CBC’s In The Making that documented the dinner.

    Stimson also took Bronson to the school.

    “I don’t know how it stays standing,” Bronson says. “If I were Siksika, I would burn it down again.”

    Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

    Included in Siksika artist Adrian Stimson's response to AA Bronson's apology were photographs of 68 boys who attended the Old Sun residential school on the Siksika reserve. ‘All of those boys are now our fathers,’ says Stimson.

    Bronson, along with research assistant Ben Miller, spent months poring through archival photographs, journals, documents and news reports. Many accounts had portions destroyed or removed, in particular, those that dealt with the uprising.

    “In the records of the Anglican Church, there was no such uprising — just Tims was reassigned to a different church after some vague trouble. It really was erased from history,” says Bronson. Through Miller’s diligent research, they pieced the story together.

    “And of course, the story comes from the dinner table. It comes from stories that my father told and my grandfather told.”

    In Bronson’s apology, which he published as a book, he speaks directly to Old Sun, Red Crow, Chief White Pup and other chiefs of the late 19th century; to the children who suffered at residential schools; to the parents who lost their children to abuse and disease; to the medicine men who couldn’t attend to the dying; and to those who participated in the Siksika uprising.

    “I have no excuse for the slaughter of the buffalo, nor the genocide of First Nations,” he writes. “I have no excuse for decades of mass incarceration and abuse of children, disguised as residential schools, disguised as ‘for their own good.’”

    Collodion wet plate self portrait by Adrian Stimson

    Bronson also speaks to those in later generations who have experienced abuse, HIV/AIDS, suicide and murder. At the end of the book is a meticulously detailed timeline of events, an essay about the Siksika rebellion and archival photographs.

    “It’s an invocation of the dead. It’s inviting the dead to join us in considering this piece of history. And I do believe we are a community of the living and the dead. We can’t escape that. The dead are part of us, and that needs to be acknowledged,” says Bronson.

    “And that harm that my ancestors did to Adrian’s ancestors needs to be acknowledged and brought into the room. And we need to sit with that history.”

    Stimson has heard and read the apology many times. But he is clearly moved when he hears Bronson read from it.

    “It still resonates,” he says, his voice cracking.

    “When the government apologizes, that’s fine, and a lot of people did a lot of work around that. But the real acts of conciliation happen between individuals.” (Stimson prefers to say conciliation, arguing that conciliation needs to be achieved before reconciliation is possible.)

    “It’s the people themselves who have to take it upon themselves to find ways of creating relationships,” he says. “And it may not always end up in an apology. But it’s so important to understand that history, and look to ways of repairing or creating new relationships into the future.”

    As an artistic response to the apology, Stimson created Iini Sookumapii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a recreation of the dinner table where he and the elders first met with Bronson, which was also on show at the Toronto Biennial.

    Stimson asked Old Sun survivor Gordon Little Light to build a table similar to one that might have been found at the school, then appointed it with fine silver and dinnerware — a stark opposite to what Indigenous children would have experienced.

    “Then I put a little bronze bison on each plate, sort of looking at the diner as a way of interrogating,” explains Stimson. For millennia, bison were a primary source of food, clothing, commerce and ceremony for the Blackfoot people; white settlers wiped out their population, leading to deprivation and starvation.

    “A lot of my work deals with the slaughter, which is very analogous to what happened at the table.”

    Credit: Triple Threat / Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019

    “When the government apologizes, that’s fine, and a lot of people did a lot of work around that. But the real acts of conciliation happen between individuals.”

    A vase of white roses with one red rose, symbolizing the government’s aggressive push for assimilation, also sat on the table, while a light from the Old Sun school hung above.

    Behind the table, a large photograph featured a group of boys at the school, some of them looking despondent, others smiling.

    “It really struck me that all of those boys are now our fathers here on the nation, many who have passed and some who are still with us,” Stimson says.

    “Although many were smiling, you could only imagine the heartache that existed from being taken away from their families and having to live in that school — and I certainly know that from my father’s own stories of being in that place.”

    While the collaboration was first brought into public view at last year’s biennial, it didn’t end there. After witnessing the apology, Stimson and the elders shared it with the Siksika community. The book has also been widely distributed within the nation.

    This spring, Stimson had planned to host a powwow where Bronson would make the apology directly to the community. But the Covid-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.

    Of course, no apology could ever properly address a genocide, Bronson says.

    “There’s no way to make up for what was done,” he says. “That’s impossible.”

    Still, their collaboration speaks to the power of individual action. Recently, Stimson had to prepare a statement about the abuse he suffered at residential schools — a task that invariably triggers profound sadness and anger. But in the process, he realized working with Bronson has been healing.

    “I know for the elders who were present, they’ve felt very much the same. They really felt somebody listened to them. And in listening to them, that hurt and that anger, that resentment, all those things that come with that history are somewhat lessened,” says Stimson.

    “It never will ever go away. But at the same time, as you build trust, as you build friendships, as you come to know and come to understand that in the hearts of many people, there is a willingness to change and to address these things and move forward in a good way,” he says.

    “Seeing that certainly gives us hope that other people will start doing this, and actually really start walking the walk of an apology.”

    Digital lead producers: Tahiat Mahboob, Ruby Buiza | Copy editor: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Web development: Geoff Isaac | Video producer: Andrew Alba | Radio producer: Cora Nijhawan | Executive producers: Ann MacKeigan, Paul Gorbould