Reflections on how wrong I’ve been about economic reconciliation

August 07, 2020

Twenty-five years ago this month, I left Texas to go to college in Oregon. I never looked back. The world was too big, and my experience of seeing it too small. I studied the cultures of the world and then pursued a career in International development. When I came back home I worked with immigrant communities across America and then with First Nations in Western Canada. I personally benefitted enormously along the way, but the focus of my work was always about supporting other peoples in their economic development and growth.

I guess I should be happy that it only took 25 years to see how wrong I was about it all. Some of us spend our whole lives missing fundamental truths.

For some time now I have been working with Sxwpilemaát Siyám (aka Chief Leanne Joe) of the Squamish Nation and Lily Raphael here in the CED program to advance the cause of economic reconciliation. When Chief Leanne and I met for coffee two years ago with bright eyes and big plans, I was still in the mindset of “the struggle”. I came into it with a desire to fight for economic sovereignty and better access to capital and technical capacity. Equality meant dismantling systems holding First Nations back and making space for them to progress as they saw fit.

The longer I sit with the work though, the more obvious it is that those aspects of reconciliation are actually quite small. As settlers, we absorbed the whole of Indigenous Canada into ourselves. We took diverse peoples and beliefs, very different from ours, and surrounded them with systems that they are still suffocating within. Beyond the fact that this was wholly against their will, even more devastating was the reality that our systems weren’t even that good. Institutionalized capitalism has struggled to deliver benefits to settler peoples, much less the Indigenous peoples we enclosed in space and time. Poverty, ecological degradation, income inequality, housing affordability, lack of mental health support, and many other challenges affect Canadians of all backgrounds, even while they disproportionately impact First Nations.

So, one of the things I have gotten so wrong across my career is that the core of the problem of economic justice is not righting historical injuries or economic empowerment. The core of the problem, even deeper than those two, is coming to terms with the fact that we as settlers were never that smart about economics in the first place. We thought Twinkies and mass produced cars were a good idea. We thought the problems we saw in our communities and environment would just go away with more technology and more wealth. We doubled down on bad bets and we’ve harmed not only First Nations, but ourselves, all along the way.

In my work at the CED program I sit in on discussions with our Indigenous partners and they talk about practices of environmental sustainability, communal resilience, and protecting vulnerable populations which they have engaged in for millennia. Meanwhile, I sit in on discussions with other progressive settler folk like myself, and we grapple with these same issues as if we are on some new frontier that is only now being explored. Like Columbus, we're discovering these values and practices after hundreds of years of doing economics the wrong way, barely acknowledging that our own neighbors have already traveled this ground before.

I don’t mean to paint the situation in binary extremes. I do believe we all have something to share, and we all have failures to address. My point though is that reconciliation is more about changing settler ideas and economies than it is changing Indigenous people to fit into an unhealthy economic model. Reconciliation (whether it is of accounts, viewpoints, or friendships) requires change on both sides, with the offending side changing moreso than the other. Whether we live in Vancouver, Nelson, Ottawa, or Inuvik, settler economies and systems have to change more than Indigenous peoples do.

For what it’s worth, I think the first step in reconciliation is acknowledging the limitations of competition, industrial attraction, unlimited growth, and place marketing as economic values. These seem to be hurting us more now than helping us. The second step is seriously listening to our Indigenous neighbors as economic experts and not just as beneficiaries. Drink in their vast expertise as good humans and understand how their ways of knowing and being can improve our lives. The third step is openly reflecting on our weaknesses and identifying areas where we can apply Indigenous knowledge to build better systems. Only then, when we have made ourselves fully open to change and have accepted our Indigenous neighbors as intellectual equals, can we begin the process of meaningful reconciliation. Decolonizing systems and investing into empowerment is critically important, but it’s still just tinkering at the edges of a much deeper and more complex failure on our part to learn and evolve as a society.