Reconciliation in Postcolonial Canada

An inuksuk, a manmade stone landmark, traditionally built by peoples of the Arctic region of North America.

Even if first steps have been taken, the traumas of cultural genocide against Indigenous People are still a hotly discussed topic in Canada.

by Janine Murphy

The advertisement is prominent in the pharmacy’s window as it has been practically the entire winter. Touting the benefits of a new superfood, Aronia, which is said to naturally boost a person’s—in this case a child’s—immune system, it attempts to connect the new discovery of the berry’s medical properties with a long history of use, relating it to a precolonial traditional medicine of North American Indigenous People.[1] On its website, the company-provided history of the berry contends that the Iroquois People of America used the berries as a preservative for meat and brewed the leaves in hot water as a cure for the common cold. If the marketing connection between the berry and traditional Indigenous medicine was not clear enough in the blurb, the branding aid of Yakari, a Franco-Belgian cartoon based on a young, presumably sixteenth-century, Sioux American, makes the connection clear. This is the medicine of the friendly, what Jacquelyn Kilpatrick refers to as “Hollywood”[2], “Indian” who long used the land rather than pharmaceuticals to cure what ails them.

It is not the ad per se that draws my attention as I walk past—stereotypical depictions of Indigenous People are common in Germany. Instead, I am struck by the newness of the advertisement (the copyright on the Aronia+ webpage goes back to 2017). In 2020, shouldn’t we have come far enough not only to recognize that cultures are not costumes but also that a caricature surely shouldn’t be used as branding for a product?

This question is relevant to me because I grew in Canada, which currently undergoing a process of reconciliation. I grew up in Canada’s most easterly province of Newfoundland and Labrador. With a population of 500,000, most residents live on the island of Newfoundland, which has nearly as much landmass as the entire country of Germany. When I attended school in the 1990s, we were vaguely made aware of the people whose lands our ancestors had declared their own. Historical narratives of the people who had been there before us focused largely on the struggle of the white settlers to tame the wild easterly lands and protect their settlements. The Indigenous People, the Inuit of Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and the Innu of Nitassinan of Labrador, and the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk peoples of Newfoundland, played the role of the oft-threatening Other. For those of us who grew up on the island, the historical narrative frames it as being Indigenousless, with only one Mi’kmaq reservation in the small community of Conne River (Miawpukek). The predominant Indigenous group, the Beothuk People did not survive European colonialism. Modern Indigenous People were seen as a largely Labrador Affair.[3] As the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’ Heritage Website page on the Indigenous history of Newfoundland and Labrador, published in 1997, frames it: “As a result of a complex mix of factors, the Beothuk became extinct in 1829 when Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John’s.”[4] The language there captures the general narrative: Beyond the reservation, the Indigenous People of Newfoundland had seemingly simply ceased to exist after the nineteenth century.

St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador

Reminders that we stood on the lands of a people there long before colonialism, the biggest of those “complex factors,” set its sights on the region’s rich resources emerged in public discourses of Indigenous People’s struggles to adopt to the “modern” way of life.[5] The Newfoundland and Labrador media found a posterchild in the 1990s. In 1993, a video was released to the media of six children in the northern Labrador town of Davis Inlet under the age of fourteen inhaling gasoline and declaring that they wanted to die. The video was repeatedly played throughout that winter on the evening news. Davis Inlet had been settled by the Innu People of Labrador in the early 20th century, as caribou populations dwindled. Without access to a stable food source, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle had to be adapted to ensure access to non-caribou food sources. Settling in Davis Inlet provided access to supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a colonial remnant of the fur trade, which had substantially altered Indigenous ways of life in Canada, bringing them into wars between the British and the French colonists and disrupting traditional nomadic and hunter/gatherer practices.[6]

Settlement in Davis Inlet presented significant challenges. The Government of Newfoundland[7] and the Government of Canada attempted several times to forcibly settle the Innu elsewhere, with each new settlement making it more difficult to engage in the caribou hunt. As such, the Innu People found themselves having to return to Davis Inlet, tying survival not to the land but to the grocery store. At the same time, government-provided housing was inadequate for the environment, water supply was insufficient and contaminated, and diseases like tuberculosis spread in the community. Such decisions were not made in the time of my nineteenth-century forefathers, but of my parents.

The 1993 video had been predated by what the media dubbed the “Valentine’s Day Tragedy” in 1992, when six Innu children under the age of ten died in a house fire. The children had been left unattended as their parents’ could attend a community dance. As a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report evoking the language of Innu failure from the time put it: “At the time of the Valentine’s Day tragedy, nearly all the adults in Davis Inlet were receiving public assistance and getting drunk on home brew—a powerful concoction of sugar, molasses and yeast stirred into boiling water and left overnight to ferment.”[8] The video a year later of children inhaling gas declaring their desire to die rather than live in Davis Inlet was seen as a cry from help from a community that was failing its children.

In an attempt to address the problem, the Innu communities of Davis Inlet and Sheshatshit reached out to the Federal Government of Canada for help. Against the background of a national and international outcry, the Government of Canada agreed to resettle the community of Natuashish, investing—a favourite figure of the media—$200 million in the new community. Problems nonetheless persisted. Despite the federal money that was made available to give the Innu People “a foundation that had been missing for so long”, and despite finally having access to the human rights of clean water and warm homes, the new settlement of Natuashish continued, as the CBC not so cryptically put it, dealing with the “hangovers” of the past and frustration grew.[9] Things had not gotten better for the children of Natuashish. After leaving, standards of education remained low in the once again resettled community, with poor attendance rates, and a high prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome among students. As another CBC segment problematically termed it, “Educating the Innu” was proving to be difficult.[10] It seemed, simply moving a town and throwing money at it would not be the saviour the Government had believed it would be.

This was not the first time that the Government of Canada had failed its Indigenous citizens. A 2014 Report from the United Nations, explained that despite clear legal frameworks and policy initiatives meant to protect Indigenous rights, a well-being gap between Indigenous and settler Canadians remained. Addressing this gap, the report proposed would be a daunting task against the background of Indigenous Canadians’ distrust of the government institutions.[11]

Distrust of the Government of Canada stems from the long-standing mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians, a major remnant not of the colonial period but of the Canadian Indian Act (1876). Under the act, the Canadian Indian residential school policy was implemented to educate Indigenous People in Christian-church run boarding schools that were funded by the Federal Government’s Department of Indian Affairs. The impetus for the program was the belief that if Indigenous children were removed from the influence of their own culture, they could become Canadian under the leitmotif of “kill the Indian in the child”. Nearly 150,000 Indigenous Canadians were relocated to such boarding schools, many of whom—estimates in the thousands—never returned. Those who survived the schools emerged significantly traumatized by the experience of being forcibly removed from their families and the loss of language and culture. This was further compounded by the physical and sexual abuse many endured at the hands of those who were supposed to be their teachers. The schools’ legacy is not of the Canadianization of Indigenous People but of trauma passed through generations manifesting as stress, alcoholism, substance abuse and a suicide rate three times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians.

Today, the Government of Canada, Canadian and Indigenous People has entered a phase of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which had been established in June 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, concluded that the residential school system was an institutionalised policy of the cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. The report contains “94 Calls to Action” to reconcile the legacy of the residential schools, by addressing the harms caused by the residential school policy, and to begin a process of reconciliation by establishing the foundation for a better relationship between the Canadian federal and provincial governments and Indigenous Nations. This marks a first, long overdue step in recognizing the role the Canadian government and Canadians have played in the trauma communities like Davis Inlet faced through the violence of conversion, Canadianization, and civilization.

The majority of the calls for action remain, however, incomplete and many unaddressed. What the Truth and Reconciliation Report has done is confront Canadians with direct evidence not of our ancestors as the willing executioners of a genocide against Indigenous People but of our parents and our own generations’ willful ignorance of a cultural genocide that continues to unfold. It is time for Canada’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung. As I write, protests have broken out across Canada in a battle between Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and oil and gas pipelines. Media pundits are now talking of a Catch 22 between rewarding Indigenous People with meetings with federal leaders in response to illegal protests that saw the Canadian rail system come to a standstill.[12]

So, if we want to start looking for an answer as to how someone, somewhere felt the advertisement in the window of a German pharmacy is a good idea, we don’t have to look much further than my home continent. As part of a larger genocide of Indigenous culture and people, we exported the caricature and spent centuries fine-tuning it. Part of the reconciliation process is going to require investing the same energy in undoing the export. Maybe that ought to be a ninety-fifth call for action?

Dr. des. Janine Murphy

ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Lehrstuhl für Neuere Geschichte an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Ihr Forschungsinteresse ist unter anderem Deutsche und Europäische Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Ihre neueste Publikation „Contesting Surveillance: The Rhine-Ruhr Gymnastics Movement and the Prussian State, 1850-1864“ wurde 2018 in der Zeitschrift German History veröffentlicht.


Recommended reading and Resources

Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012)

Rebecca Nagle, “This Land” (Crooked Media, 2019).

Kate Gunn & Bruce McIvor, “The Wet’suwet’en, Aboriginal Title, and the Rule of Law: An Explainer,” First Peoples Law, 2020.

Gord Downie, “The Secret Path,” 2016.

Geoffrey York, “Murray Sinclair has tried for years to shock Canada into confronting colonialism. He’s not done yet,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 2019. Social%20Network%20%2F%20Media&utm_campaign=Shared%20Web%20Article%20Links&fbclid=IwAR3DvAW910aA8RPAGu0kym-pfMxtCJri7B3p-gjh2EfDwcf1fTe6fGr_1Wo

Native Land:





[2] Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Licoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). On Yakari see: Sabine N. Meyer, “Decentering Man’s Place in the Universe: Yakari and Its Visual Representation of Native Americans,” Zeitschrift Kunst Medien Bildung, 2013. Obtained from:

[3] In the current Government of Newfoundland and Labrador structure, the link between Labrador and Indigenous Affairs is clear as the Premier has been mandated with overseeing both portfolios:  Previously these portfolios were under the purview of of a Minister for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Recent work on such discourses in the United States, for example, claim that racism against indigenous people ought to be seen differently as the goal of colonialism was not to use indigenous people as labour but to obtain land resources and thereby undermine questions of land rights and sovereignty. In so doing, colonial and later the settler colonial governments emphasized indigenous people as inferior persons who nonetheless could, with help from the white paternalist, be integrated in modern society. See, for example, Bethany Berger, „Red: Racism and the American Indian“ (2009). Faculty Articles and Papers. 265.

[6] See Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) and Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660-1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

[7] Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949.






Beitrag veröffentlicht





Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert