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Rhett Sangster, Summer 2013 Applied Field Experience:

Saskatchewan First Nations Office of the Treaty Commissioner, Saskatchewan, Canada


I have a feeling that I will look back at this summer’s Applied Field Experience as an important time in my life. I came to the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to research the status of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. I spent the summer working with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC), an organisation mandated to facilitate implementation of the “numbered treaties” entered into between the Canadian Crown and First Nations from 1871 to 1906.

It’s been quite a learning journey. I’ve had my preconceptions and instincts as a peacebuilder challenged, have felt overwhelmed at times with the weight and complexity of my country’s history and challenges, but also completely inspired and energized by the quality and dedication of the people I’ve worked with, and the opportunities that exist to build better understanding and a common future for the province.

To set the scene – I travelled back to Saskatchewan, a place where I spent the first 24 years of my life, but one which I’ve not called home for 12 years. Saskatchewan is a huge landlocked piece of real estate situated right in the middle of Canada, and it is home to a small population of roughly one million of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. The province has traditionally been one of the country’s poorest – its wealth depending on the result of the year’s wheat, barley and canola harvests. But today the place is booming. A growing world population hungry for food, fertilizer, and energy has meant an influx of investment and jobs into a province rich with potash, oil and gas, uranium, and farm land. Travelling the province I now see new construction in the small towns that I watched slowly dying as a kid. There’s a “sky’s the limit” sentiment here now which is exciting to see.

At the same time, the province’s demographics are changing. The First Nations population grew 3.5 times faster than non-Indigenous Saskatchewan residents between 1996 and 2006. It’s expected that First Nations will make up twenty percent of the provincial population in 2015 and up to 33 percent by 2045.

Many argue that “Saskaboom” has yet to adequately benefit this growing First Nation population, who on average earn about 30 percent less than non-First Nation people in Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Some I’ve met this summer have suggested that tension is escalating, as First Nation youth see the province get rich off resources they feel were never given up in treaty, while they remain saddled with poverty.

Canada’s history with its First Nations people is horrible. It’s also badly understood by most Canadians.  Though the treaties agreed to in the late 19th century were crucial to the creation of Canada and the settling of its western frontier, my generation has been taught very little about them. Thankfully, a mandatory K-12 education curriculum on treaties has been designed by the OTC and been implemented in Saskatchewan since 2007 (the only province with such a curriculum). The more I learn about my home’s history, the more I see the extent to which the Canadian Government pursued an assimilation policy bent on essentially controlling and wiping out First Nations cultures. It’s a policy that has had seriously negative effects on the social and economic health of Canada’s original inhabitants. And sadly, much of the policy remains in place.

I was struck when I first arrived this summer by the anger and hurt that is still very fresh and real for many Indigenous peoples in Canada.  The Canadian Prime Minister in 2008 formally apologized for the country’s 120-year policy of forcibly removing First Nations children from their communities in favour of government-funded, church-run residential schools, where children were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing their culture. The Government has also put in place a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which continues to travel the country collecting stories from survivors. I’ve met many this summer who attended, or whose parents attended these schools, and I’ve heard sad stories of physical and mental abuse, and of the heartache caused for parents who watched their children taken away for ten months of the year.

Though the apology and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are important steps, healing takes time. One Indigenous Studies scholar summed up the bitterness of many when he said in a presentation that “I’m not ready to make nice”. The argument I heard from these Indigenous Studies scholars was that the onus for reconciliation is on the “settler” population (the descendants of non-Indigenous immigrants). According to them, this is not an “Indian problem” that needs “getting over”. Instead, they argue that the non-Indigenous population needs to shift its thinking, needs to recognize the past and make changes to what remains a colonial system which serves to oppress and disadvantage First Nations people.

This language is tough and intended to be provocative. It’s designed to “unsettle the settler” and, for me at least, it has worked. It has challenged my instinct as a peacebuilder to look for ways to resolve a conflict – to pursue neutral language that all can agree on and use to seek win-win solutions. Words like “oppression” and “settler” were at first like nails on a chalkboard for me, as I knew this type of sentiment would serve to raise, rather than lower temperatures.  But conflict is sometimes unavoidable, and if managed in a way that promotes dialogue and avoids violence, it can sometimes be helpful. Few changes can be achieved without some degree of initial disagreement.

It is here where I realize that peacebuilding at home is much different from the work I’ve done overseas. As a Canadian Foreign Service officer for the past twelve years, I have been paid to objectively provide political analysis on the factors contributing to conflicts around the world – whether that be between Turkey and its Kurdish population, between Sudan and South Sudan, or between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a third-party observer, this was a relatively simple process. I could draw out the causes of violence and logically prescribe what I thought were rational policy responses.

But it’s not so easy at home. Here I’m not a third-party observer. I’m a participant. Unlike a posting overseas, I won’t be leaving in three years, hungry for the next conflict to safely diagnose from the cheap seats. Here I’ve got some skin in the game. My family and friends live in the province. Here the relationships I build, the comments I make, and the actions I do are apt to follow me. And I realize that the prescriptions I make here must first be self-administered.

I have heard over and over again this summer about the importance of relationships. First Nations people saw the treaties as the beginning of a relationship with the “Crown” – the Queen and her representatives in the Canadian Government. It was an agreement between sovereign peoples to work together for common benefit, while not interfering in each other’s way of life. Words like “kinship” and “covenant” were used to describe the agreements. First Nations see these treaties as unbreakable – an agreement between First Nations, the Crown and the Creator – which will last as long as the “sun shines, the grass grows and the waters flow”. First Nations talk about restoring the treaty relationship as the basis for reconciliation.

I’m struck by the idea that it is relationship building which is essentially the core of peacebuilding work. Most wars today are fought within countries – between different ethnicities, socio-economic or cultural groupings. The relationships between these groups have broken down and violence becomes the dominant method for conflict resolution. But in most of these conflicts, the different parties are there to stay. No one is willing or able to completely leave the relationship with the other. It is a marriage without an option for divorce. The only choice then for sustainable peace is to (re)build the relationship – to learnto work together, to better communicate, to build up the strength and capacity of each of the parties to the relationship, and to eventually build trust. It’s a simple formula but yet so very difficult to put in practice.

We aren’t saddled in Canada with the baggage of past wars, but there is no doubt that almost 150 years of assimilationist policy has severely damaged the relationship between First Nations, the Canadian Government, and non-Indigenous Canadians. The problems and history are daunting and it’s easy to conclude that all is lost. But I’ve met a lot of good people this summer, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are committed to rebuilding our strained relationship. Difficult discussions are needed, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. And so I leave my home province both energized and hopeful for its future.


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