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The path to truth and reconciliation

‘We are more like a cultural fruitcake than a melting pot’

Thursday is National Indigenous Peoples Day. With that in mind, The Squamish Chief sat down with author, businessman, and former professor Bob Joseph, who has helped facilitate reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and settlers since 1994.

Joseph, 55, a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation, is the founding president of Indigenous Corporate Training, which provides education and resources to businesses, government and organizations on working, engaging, consulting, and negotiating with Indigenous peoples.

Clients of the organization include government, Fortune 500 companies, financial institutions — including the World Bank — small and medium-sized businesses, individuals and Indigenous groups.


Q: To start with, are you comfortable with the term reconciliation? I understand some people aren’t.

A: I don’t have any issue with the term. I think there are issues around it not happening fast enough for some people, but I think it took us 130 years to get here, so it is going to take some time to get out. 


Q: What does it mean to you, reconciliation?

A: For me, it is acknowledging the past, but not living in it. Realizing where we are today and planning for a more positive future.


Q: How did you get involved in this work? And how did Indigenous Corporate Training come about?

A: I started doing this work way back in the day for one of the big industrial developers in the province. Initially, it was just for that one developer, but along the way, we began to be benchmarked for organizations when they saw what we were doing. So, I started working for one organization, but training others and then government agencies began to call and regulators — it just grew from that.


Q: Over our lifetimes, things have changed a lot — or have they?

A: I think they have. When I think about governments consulting with Aboriginal people on land and resource development, at the time I started, there was a flow chart on the government of BC website that said, “Send letter to band. Wait 30 days. No response, go to permitting.” That was considered consultation in 1994. They now have to go through deep, meaningful consultation that can sometimes take years, depending on the nature of the project. Some of the other neat signs are you have Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson who talks about the unceded territory of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. That recognition is happening across the country. There are definitely some obvious signs of change. The corporate sector has been working with Indigenous people to sort things out; because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I think we are going to see some amazing results out of academia in the next 10 to 15 years.


Q: What do you help those you work with to understand?

A: It is communication. So, for example, people say Christopher Columbus

“discovered” the New World.

A few years ago, in Denver, Colorado, 87 American Indians were arrested because they were protesting Columbus Day. Why were they protesting? That was my question to myself. Is it the parades and celebrations they object to? Is that what they are upset about?

That is not what it is. If you look at the mean population average for the Americas in late 1492 would have been somewhere in the one hundred million people range. So these protesters had a tough time understanding how you can “discover” something when there was already that number of people.

I tell people, sometimes it is the words we are using. Change “discover” to another word. I do this as an exercise when I work with groups.

If we could change it to when Columbus “arrived” in 1492, then you don’t have to have a police force arresting 87 American Indians.

I have the free e-books, 23 Tips On What Not to Say or Do and 27 Tips On What to Say and Do. There have been 10,000 downloads of What Not to Say. This tells me that Canadians, first of all, are curious and interested. They want to know, and they are trying to do things differently, and that is not a bad place in space to be.

To me, it comes down to the battle for the soul of the country. At the one end, we were supposed to be this melting pot, but since we patriated the constitution in 1982, that doesn’t describe the country. I can’t take credit for coining this term, but we are more like a cultural fruitcake than a melting pot. We’ve got nuts and raisins — and that is the fun part of this work. If we stay the course on the cultural fruitcake, we’ll be a pretty cool country to live in — one that respects difference and cultures and values.


Q: Do you have an issue with Indigenous Day? I wonder if it isn’t a bit like Mother’s Day — a tokenism?

A: It is all part of that respect and recognition piece. I come from the Gwawaenuk of North Vancouver Island, and we practice potlatch. My dad is a hereditary Chief, and that means I will be hereditary chief one day when he passes away.

I was at a potlatch learning from him. A relative came in, and he had the Good Book [Christian Bible,] and it had a ribbon hanging on it, and this was a high-ranking hereditary chief in his own right. I wanted to know how my dad felt about that. It was ostensibly the church and the state that banned the potlatch, so I asked him, “How do you feel when one of our people come up here with the Good Book and they are going to read from the scriptures?”  He just leaned over to me and said, “He is one of our people, and he has beliefs, and we respect that.” It is all about respect.


Q: Across the province, the relationships between the First Nations and the different levels of government varies. You are hopeful, but what do you hope to see in say five years down the line regarding these relationships?

A: I think they are going to be much more positive. For example, the Squamish Nation is seeking an advisory committee of volunteers. They are reaching out to the community and when I saw that I thought — there’s reconciliation in action. Hopefully, there will be a lot of volunteers who come out. And I hope the volunteers get some training first, from the Squamish Nation or us or wherever. It can go sideways if people come out and say, “I see the plight of the Squamish Nation, and I want to help.” What I tell people in my workshops is that it is great you want to help, but don’t say that. A lot of post-confederation Indian policy was put into place on the basis of, “We are going to make them better.” So, instead talk about how you are so grateful for the opportunity to share your knowledge and experience and learn from them as much as you can — that will get you off on the right foot.



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