Ethics and Reconciliation

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September 22, 2016

By: Mark Selman

Reconciliation is one might say finally rising to the top of the agenda for Canadians, thanks in large part to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its report.  But it would be naïve not to recognize that interest in reconciliation is also fueled but uncertainty over resource development and energy projects across the country, given that the courts have recognized that First Nations and other Aboriginal people have a strong say in how and where such projects can proceed. Governments and businesses know now that they ignore Indigenous rights and title at the peril of their projects and that reaching shared understandings with Indigenous peoples has become a fundamental aspect of managing risk.  Hopefully, this can lead to more significant efforts to understand Indigenous worldviews including the modes of ethical reasoning that they embody.

However, to date, most businesses and governments treat this as primarily a legal and political challenge.  To the extent that they are willing to accommodate Indigenous interests at all, they are inclined to see the relationship as one which exists under the Canadian legal and economic system exclusively. While they may understand that local community protocols are important things to observe in building relationships, they tend to regard them as hoops to jump through in order to reach their strategic objectives.  Little attention has been paid to the fact that these issues have a very significant ethical dimension which cannot be equitably addressed without both sides learning to see each other’s reasons for coming to judgement about what is good, right, wise or equitable.

Business and government tend to see their positions as flowing from standards of scientific knowledge, economic objectives, and purportedly universal ethical values such as are expressed in the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number or fundamental principles of freedom and fairness.  But what we know about Indigenous moral understandings includes other values that are not captured within this way of understanding the world. Relationships, for example, between people and their communities as well as with animals and natural entities such as rivers and mountains or sacred places are not easily understood within conventional western ethical theories.  But failure to understand these intellectual commitments and the procedural systems that have been developed by Indigenous peoples to ensure that they are respected, means that non-Indigenous people tend to be cut off from understanding the reasons Indigenous people have for their decisions as reasons. And if they are not seen as reasons, they can be easily dismissed as arbitrary, or as superstitions and outmoded relics of “primitive” worldviews.

Fortunately, attention to reconciliation when combined with the legal necessity for finding better ways to build relationships in pursuit of economic objectives has the potential help us get beyond the current gaps in our understanding. Although much Aboriginal wisdom has been lost due to the colonial behaviour of our Nation and its institutions, churches, educational institutions and businesses among them, we are fortunate that some written accounts of Indigenous ethical understandings are becoming available. Among these I would list four important Canadian sources:

Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview by E. Richard (Umeek) Atleo

Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide by John (Kegedonce) Borrows

Indian from the Inside, 2nd edition by Dennis H. McPherson and J. Douglas Rabb

Constructing Indigeneity: Syilx Okanagan Oraliture and tmixw centrism by Jeanette Armstrong

Although the last of these four texts has a rather intimidating title, it speaks perhaps the most directly to the distinctiveness of the ethical views of Indigenous peoples, focusing specifically on the culture of the Salishan peoples, and both the substantive ethical commitments and the procedures have been developed for making wise ethical decisions.

For me, what this points to is an important role for universities in the process of reconciliation, one that goes beyond the demands for mandatory courses in in Indigenous studies.  It is to begin to articulate the wisdom and the intellectual practices of Indigenous cultures in a way that recognizes their current value in enriching human understanding.  These efforts will need to be led by the growing number of Aboriginal scholars in our institutions but there is a role for all of us in understanding and learning from these rich traditions that have been too long ignored by most western trained scholars.