No Neutral Ground: Reconciliation and Decolonization at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation

The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s first major event on Indigenous affairs in Canada took place in 2014. Under the leadership of interim president Tim Brodhead (now a Foundation mentor), the Foundation’s 2014 Summer Institute explored fundamental issues in the area – language, Indigenous law, and resource development, and more. Since then, guided by its Indigenous scholars, fellows, and mentors, the Foundation has sought to educate itself and its community further – holding a community-wide blanket exercise, partnering with RedX Talks, choosing Indigenous relations in Canada as one of its three areas of inquiry, and spending a day with elders at an Anishinaabe teaching lodge, to name a few. 

But colonization is centuries old, and the Foundation’s work so far is just a beginning. What should the Foundation do next?

“Hold regular readings of the wampum,” suggested John Borrows, 2006 fellow and professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria. “Historically, wampum belts were how many First Nations communities recorded treaty agreements with each other and with settler governments. The two-row wampum belt exchanged at the Treaty of Niagara in 1764, for example, established a treaty of peaceful alliance between the English and First Nations peoples who had gathered from all over the Great Lakes. The beads of the wampum represent respect, peace, and friendship; they depict two vessels – one for Indigenous people, one for the English – each steering its own ways, culture, and customs, travelling side by side down the same river. Regularly feasting the wampum would remind us of to live by treaty values.”

As John describes it, reading the wampum represents more than honouring Indigenous culture: it is an exercise in interacting with an Indigenous process at the same level as a process of our Canadian culture. 2016 scholar Jesse Thistle resonated with that approach. “The Foundation should consider hiring Indigenous staff who could bring a sound understanding of indigenous protocol into the organization,” he said. “Or else an elder-in-residence who could influence the Foundation’s governance as well as its operations. Indigenous communities emphasize kinship: I would love to have access to a grandmother or grandfather figure who isn’t necessarily an expert in each subject, but who could help build that environment of family and advise us on engaging with Indigenous communities in different parts of the country.”

An elder might also help new Indigenous scholars, fellows, and mentors feel at home. “Many Indigenous people come from a difficult past,” noted Jesse. “We are often the first of our generation to access higher education, and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation can feel like a very alien space to us in the beginning. I know that Foundation staff tried to make Johnny Mack feel at home back in 2011, and Johnny helped welcome Aaron Mills in 2014. Then Aaron and Jason Lewis took Cherry Smiley and me under their wing. It made such a difference. An elder could take that a step further.”

2014 fellow Jason Lewis echoed some of Jesse’s recommendations. “Indigenous members of the Board are important, but even better would be a well-connected, senior, paid Indigenous advisor whom we could pair with a staff member to research, write, and formulate recommendations at the level of strategy as well as operations. We might think in terms of a knowledge-keeper who could come in over three to five years, get to know the community, and advise at every level. The Foundation should also have at least one Indigenous jury member on each committee and sub-committee. It’s time we stopped mainstreaming Indigenous input under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion and centered Indigenous voices.”

2016 scholar Cherry Smiley suggested another way of recognizing Indigenous people. “Maybe the Foundation could dedicate a space for Indigenous people to get together before the formal opening of its events. Similarly, a comfortable room at conferences would be great: a space to retreat and have medicine if someone needs it, a quiet place to regroup when difficult issues are being discussed. Let’s not forget that for many Indigenous scholars, difficult issues aren’t just subjects of research: we experience them in our families.”

On the subject of difficult issues, Cherry also had ideas about the kinds of subjects that the Foundation might broach. “The Foundation has run fantastic Indigenous-focussed meetings so far, but they have focussed on reserves. I’d like to see more discussion with urban Indigenous communities. We should also balance our focus on cultural knowledge with discussions of the impacts of colonization. It’s been wonderful to learn about culture, but most Indigenous affairs in Canada aren’t wonderful: they are uncomfortable, especially for Indigenous people. If settlers want to be part of the solution, they have to recognize the power imbalances and address colonization head-on, as uncomfortable as that may be.”

The idea of an institutional position statement also came up. “An Indigenous position statement on the part of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation would send a signal to Indigenous people who are considering involving themselves with us,” John Borrows commented. “A statement of commitment by the institution – its Board, its president, its community, its staff – would also communicate to the Foundation’s scholars, fellows, and mentors the Foundation’s intention to build on its Indigenous-relations activities.” “Constructing an Indigenous position statement would help the Foundation inventory what it has done in this area so far,” added Cherry. “It would be a healthy exercise for the Foundation to write such a statement and reach out to its community. It would also show other organizations that an institution like ours can hold itself accountable for its actions.”

Producing a position statement; researching a local Indigenous word before visiting that part of Canada; inviting community members to join a book or film club around Indigenous books or movies in advance of Foundation events; ensuring that the Foundation always counts current Indigenous fellows, scholars, and mentors; clarifying the Foundation’s commitment to Indigenous affairs on its website – this is a promising time for the Foundation to try new ways to advance reconciliation and decolonization. “Because there is no neutral ground,” noted Jason Lewis. “Not doing the work is choosing to perpetuate the status quo. And the Foundation has the resources and the networks to change the status quo, if it takes up the challenge."