Human progress involves understanding and building coherence in the relationship between the seen and unseen—between what is hidden from view and what is evident right before us.
Seen and unseen realities are integral to who we are as human beings. In the Bahá’í understanding, each of us is at once a spiritual and physical being. We “approach God” through our spiritual nature, and in our physical nature we “[live] for the world alone.”1https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/paris-talks/3#165303977 Our purpose and challenge in life is to understand and strive to express the spiritual dimension of our beings in how we live our temporal and physical lives. Through this coherence, we can achieve greater degrees of well-being, happiness, and accomplishment for ourselves and those around us.
Similarly, in our collective life, we need to build social realities grounded in and reflective of spiritual principles. Addressing social challenges requires applying in practical ways certain values and forces that we understand as integral to human existence. When we do this, we will support healthy, prosperous, and enduring relationships and societies. In the Bahá’í understanding:
[t]here are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.2https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace
If human progress—as the Bahá’í teachings suggest—depends on understanding and building coherence between the invisible spiritual dimensions and the visible temporal dimensions of our reality, then it is fair to suggest that the opposite must also be true. When this relationship is not understood and reflected in our lives, when we do not see the connection between what is visible and what is invisible, human experience is marked by greater forms of hardship, lack of well-being, and patterns of social injustice. Inevitably, any effective program aimed at constructive social change must, in some way, involve making the invisible visible.
Reflecting this, for example, the Bahá’í writings speak about how addressing contemporary challenges faced by humanity requires a revitalized “consciousness” of the “oneness of humanity”3https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace and “world citizenship.”4https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace In becoming aware of the inextricable interconnection and interdependence of all human beings as part of one species—a reality that, in various ways, we have been veiled from seeing—constructive change can be driven. The depths of veiling of this consciousness are one of the roots of harm and conflict that justifies, for example, arbitrary and destructive distinctions between peoples along racial lines, or that paralyzes the ability to meet challenges, such as climate change, that require solutions grounded in the recognition of oneness.
This understanding—of how human progress requires making the unseen seen—provides insights into our efforts to address enduring social challenges and can help inform the ongoing development of practices and policies for change. This paper examines how these Bahá’í ideas about human progress and oneness might be applied to current discourses and efforts to address the harmful legacy of colonization of Indigenous peoples. A particular focus is on Canada, which is often viewed globally as a litmus test for progress and failure in redress and justice for Indigenous peoples. Such analysis reveals that the dynamics of the invisible being made visible at various levels has been an integral force in driving some change in Canada. Yet, at the same time, there remain fundamental realities of division and silos, as well as an enduring denial of the depths of social transformation required to address the legacy of racial inequality. From a Bahá’í perspective, if true reconciliation is to occur, current efforts and patterns must continue to be seen in a new light that can accelerate a focus on more fundamental and systemic change.
In 2021, Canada had a moment of reckoning. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, a First Nation in British Columbia in western Canada, announced the identification of potentially more than 200 unmarked burials of Indigenous children the Canadian state had forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The response to the announcement set off a form of national convulsion. Many non-Indigenous Canadians appeared shocked and stunned, unaware of the reality that their country’s history included children being removed from their families for “schooling,” only to die and never return. Some in the national media called it “shocking.”5https://nationalpost.com/news/what-happens-next-after-shocking-discovery-of-215-childrens-graves-in-kamloops Political leaders called it “unimaginable.”6https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-eml%C3%BAps-te-secw%C3%A9pemc-215-children-former-kamloops-indian-residential-school-1.6043778 Perhaps more than at any other moment in Canadian history, Indigenous peoples and their experiences and realities were at the foreground of Canadian public life, discourse, and debate. There was a growing chorus of calls for substantive action, change, and impromptu gatherings and memorials.
But something was puzzling in this reaction. Of course, we are appropriately horrified by acts that amount to genocide, such as those experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.7In recent years, the colonization of Indigenous peoples in Canada has increasingly been described as a genocide. The reporting on unmarked burials across the country since 2021 has solidified this understanding. In July 2022, Pope Francis, at the conclusion of his trip to Canada to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, acknowledged that the history of assimilation and abuses amounted to genocide. But how could it be that the predominant response of Canadian governments, institutions, and organizations, as well as the general public, was surprise that such a thing could ever have occurred?
The history of Indigenous peoples8When using the term “Indigenous” in reference to Canada, it applies to three distinct peoples—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Within each of these peoples, there is further diversity and distinction. For example, amongst First Nations, there are more than 70 language groups and 60 to 80 separate peoples. in Canada, and their enduring struggle for justice, has been thoroughly documented. The broad strokes are undeniable. At the core of European colonization was the “doctrine of discovery,” a precept from the Papacy that, if no Christians lived in a land, the lands were to be considered “discovered” and uninhabited. Simply put, the ugly root of this principle was that if there were no Christian inhabitants, then there were no human inhabitants.9https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-title-and-the-doctrine-of-discovery Consequently, such lands were terra nullius, or empty of human beings. In the lands that now make up Canada, this racist doctrine justified a process of European settlement—and ultimately the founding of Canada in 1867—that included subjugating and displacing the diverse Indigenous peoples by imposing massive systems of oppression upon them.
Two policy programs became the foundation of Canada. The first policy was assimilation, which aimed to destroy Indigenous knowledge, culture, spirituality, family, governance, and social systems. Sir John A. McDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, stated that there was “nothing in [Indigenous peoples’] way of life that was worth preserving” and explained the goal of the government as being “to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominions as speedily as they are fit to change.”10Session of the 6th Parliament of Dominion of Canada, 1887, quoted in “Facing History and Ourselves,” in Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools (City: Publisher, 2018), 37. https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/chapter-3/introduction Residential schools were one tool of this policy of assimilation. Their object, as explained by Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the founders of Canada and an early government leader, was as follows: “in order to educate the (‘Indian’) children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that…if you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they will remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes…of civilized people.”11J. Charles Boyce, ed., “Debates of the House of Commons, 5th Parliament, 1st Session: Volume 2,” Library of Parliament, 1883, https://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0501_02/2
The second policy program was denial and dispossession. Reflecting the “doctrine of discovery,” any claim by Indigenous peoples that they had sovereignty, ownership, or a relationship with lands and resources that made up Canada was rejected, ignored, and even outlawed. This was foundational to Canada’s economic and political creation, in addressing both the interests of different European powers—most notably the English and French—and the demands of increasing numbers of European settlers. First Nations peoples were, in various ways, forcibly removed from their lands and segregated in a system of small reserves. Even in areas where historic treaties were signed with the British Crown, both before and after Confederation, promises regarding land have been continually and systematically violated.
One of the central vehicles for implementing these assimilation and denial policies is the racist and colonial Indian Act, which passed soon after Canada was formed in the nineteenth century. The Indian Act formalized and entrenched the reserve system, authorized the removal of Indigenous children and their placement in residential schools, denied basic human rights including voting, freedom of movement, and the right to legal counsel, outlawed Indigenous forms of government, and imposed a foreign system of administrative governance through Indian Act band councils overseen and controlled by the federal government.
While some elements of the Indian Act have been amended over time, as of 2022, the Indian Act remains the primary legislation governing the lives of First Nations people in Canada.
The counterpoint to this history of colonialism has been the enduring effort led by Indigenous peoples, at times with the support of allies from many backgrounds, to address these injustices, secure recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and establish proper relations between governments and Indigenous peoples. From Canada’s earliest days, visions of this proper relationship have been advanced in various ways. For example, in some First Nations cultures, wampum—made of white and purple seashells and beads—is woven into belts to symbolize peoples, relations, alliances, and events. The Two Row Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee expressed a vision of peaceful co-existence between Europeans and Indigenous peoples where “it is agreed that we will travel together, side by each, on the river of life…linked by peace, friendship, forever. We will not try to steer each other’s vessels.” As Ellen Gabriel explains:
Ka’swenh:tha or the Two Row Wampum Treaty is a significant agreement in history of the relationship between European monarchs and Indigenous peoples. Ka’swenh:tha is more than visionary. As a principled treaty it is grounded in an Indigenous intellect providing an insight and a vigilant awareness of the inevitability of the evolution of society. Ka’swenh:tha is an instrument of reconciliation for contemporary times if openness, honesty, respect, and genuine concern for present and future generations is a foundational priority.12Ellen Gabriel, “Ka’swenh:tha—the Two Row Wampum: Reconciliation through an Ancient Agreement,” in Reconciliation & the Way Forward (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2014)
Another example is the vision of co-existence with the British that is shared by several interior First Nations in British Columbia, including the Secwepemc, Okanagan, and Nlaka’pamux. In 1910, they wrote to Prime Minister Laurier to raise the alarm about the intensifying oppression, poverty, and hardship facing their peoples. As part of their letter, they shared how their earlier leaders had envisioned proper relations:
Some of our Chiefs said, “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them and live as one family. We will share equally in everything – half and half – in land, water and timber, and so on. What is ours will be theirs and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.” 13http://www.skeetchestn.ca/files/documents/Governance/memorialtosirwilfredlaurier1910.pdf
Efforts by Indigenous peoples to advance these visions of peaceful co-existence have included political actions and organization and the completion of treaties and agreements that they hoped would serve as the foundation for the manifestation of this vision. Alongside this, there has been extensive use of the courts and all forms of social movements and social action.
At the same time, Indigenous peoples have worked to maintain and pass on their culture, knowledge, and social systems to future generations, although they have often had to do this work in the shadows. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous person to serve as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, shared an example of this resilience in her own family:
My grandmother, whose English name was Ethel Pearson and whose Kwakwaka’wakw name was Pugladee, had to struggle for change in the shadows, out of sight and invisible, to ensure our culture and our ways survived. To keep our traditions of the Big House alive—our governance system—she and others had to hide their gatherings and the work they were doing from agents of the federal government, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who had direction to stop those gatherings and that work. Our people had a system of lookouts that would let them know when the officials were close, so they could switch from the work they were doing to singing church hymns.14Jody Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation: How to be a Force for Change (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2022), 4.
There has also been extensive study and analysis of Canada’s legacy of colonialism, its enduring impacts on Indigenous peoples and society at large, and the necessary solutions to overcome these realities. For example, in 1996, it was estimated that in the previous three decades, almost 900 reports were written on the conditions of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous policy in Canada. Since then, the pace of study has only grown. All of these studies include recommendations and solutions for moving forward.
Similarly, the residential school system was the subject of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission15https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/ that completed its work in 2015 and heard evidence from more than 6,500 individuals. The Commission’s work included producing a volume titled Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.16https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/trc/IR4-9-4-2015-eng.pdf which confirmed 3,200 deaths of children at residential schools, based only on a limited review of documents which were often not kept and not complete. For example, almost half of these confirmed deaths did not list a cause of death, and nearly a third lacked the child’s name. Given this, it has long been clear that properly supporting the search for these lost children would return evidence of far more deaths, by many thousands.
So to return to our question: How could the 2021 unmarked burials announcements be a “shock” and “unimaginable” to many Canadians? They were not, of course, a shock to Indigenous people. As Jody Wilson-Raybould explains:
While the reports were indeed horrific for Indigenous peoples, they were not shocking. Yes, they are triggering and extremely painful, on a personal level, for many. But in our communities, it has always been known that children never returned from residential schools, that they died there. In various ways, these missing children have always been spoken of, as part of our telling of our history in this country.17Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation, 49.
Being incapable of seeing injustices that are right before one’s eyes is a perpetuation of injustice. Bahá’u’lláh highlights this truth in one of His definitions of justice, when He equates justice with being able to see the realities around oneself. Writing in the mid-1800s, He stated that the “best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice,” explaining that, by the aid of justice, “thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others” and “know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge” of others.18https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/HW/hw-3.html He goes on to say, “justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.”19https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/HW/hw-3.html
Without the capacity to see justice and injustice, we allow injustice to prevail. We passively bestow upon the status quo a taken-for-granted quality and fail to look beyond what is immediately and directly in front of our eyes. What looks normal, no matter how pernicious and destructive the reality it perpetuates for others, we come to accept as right, having never sought to understand what may be, at first glance, unseen to us. According to Bahá’u’lláh, this dehumanizes us as individuals. In His view, it is a complete failure to use the capacities that make us truly human. We become blind imitators; we do not see for ourselves and are trapped by illusions, unable to effect change that is grounded in principle, progress, and truth in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large. As He writes:
The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.20https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/TB/tb-11.html
In the context of Canada, despite decades of revelations about the true history of the country and the racist and colonial treatment of Indigenous peoples, the reality of unmarked burials (among other aspects of the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada) remained mainly invisible to governing institutions and the general public. This is not to say there hasn’t been some progress and change. There has been change, much of it vital and important in addressing harms and seeking a more just future. This change has been facilitated by growing awareness and knowledge. What has also been revealed, however, is how powerful and deeply entrenched narratives about Canada—portrayed as a nation forged by English Europeans and French Europeans and as a model of multiculturalism through diversity achieved by immigration— veil the true story of Canada’s foundation being built through exclusion, racism, and colonization. Truly achieving justice is impossible until we rip these veils away and reshape predominant narratives and discourses in ways that support systemic, structural, and transformative change.
Within this veiling is the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and experience. What becomes predominant is a version of reality in which Indigenous peoples simply do not, and never did, exist. Douglas White III (one of the authors of this paper), recounted the following vivid illustration of this pervasive erasure:
At the time I was Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and had been asked to give a public talk about the history of our Nation. The talk was being held in Departure Bay, which was the site of our major winter village site—Stliinup in our language. We had been pushed out of Stliinup in the mid 1800s even though the village was to be protected for our people by the treaty we entered into in 1854. Settlers named Sliinup “Departure Bay” when they came across the village at a time of year when our people were across the Salish Sea at the Fraser River for our summer salmon fishery. They assumed we were gone for good, not understanding our yearly cycle of movement throughout our territories.
After the talk, during which I shared the history of Stliinup, a member of the public approached me to say that he had lived in Departure Bay for three decades. He said he was shocked to learn the history of where he lived, and that he had no idea that this was the main winter village of the Snuneymuxw.
I was stunned as well. It had never been made so explicitly clear to me how powerful the predominant narratives of history, time, and place were, and the extent of how they erased my people. But this was a reality that I confronted more and more in my years as Chief. I realized that the reality of erasure was all-encompassing. It extended to every aspect of our reality, from where we lived, to our way of life, to our culture, to our history, to our territory, to our contributions to broader society. Even those elements of our reality that were fully shared with the Crown—like our Treaty of 1854—were effectively forgotten and ignored. Even though the Treaty was recognized and affirmed by Canada’s Constitution in 1982, decades later, as Chief, I was constantly interacting with government officials who didn’t seem to see or understand a version of history that included my people, our experience, or the basis of our relationship with the Crown.
This importance of seeing injustice and justice, and the challenge we have in doing so, is at the core of much current study and action in response to racism. Recent anti-racist literature emphasizes this. For example, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.”21Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 9. Identification and description are necessary because of the blindness people often show toward the ways their choices, actions, and realities uphold forms of racism. Absent critical self-reflection, consciousness-raising, and shifts in perception of self and others (and the relationship between self and others), biases and ignorance remain unconfronted. As individuals and collectives, failure to see and apprehend this reality is not some neutral act for which one is not responsible. On the contrary, it perpetuates and reinforces beliefs, patterns, and unjust and harmful structures.
From Silos to Solidarity
Using the capacity and responsibility that each individual has to see justice and injustice is only a start. Consciousness-raising can inform and propel social transformation, but it does not actually achieve it. Seeing must translate into concrete and impactful social action—and it must do so in particular directions.
Systems of oppression construct visible silos that manifest themselves across all facets of society: cultural, social, political, and economic. In Canada, one expression of this is sometimes described as a socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This gap exists across all social sectors: Indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high rates of incarceration, children in care, poverty, and suicide, as well as worse education and health outcomes, among other realities.
Underlying and reinforcing these visible silos are the invisible ones, of the vastly different perceptions, interpretations, and understanding–rooted in vastly different experiences–of people living in the same place at the same time. One by-product of colonialism is the construction of separate and cut-off knowledge systems simultaneously being built and shaped. Peoples, based on their differing experiences—some of privilege and some of oppression—construct ways of comprehending and explaining their reality and have distinct networks and mechanisms for sharing, transmitting, and acting based on that explanation. In conditions of systemic racial oppression, vastly different worldviews and belief systems animate the cultures and ways of life of the colonizer and colonized. As such, not only is there a vastly different experience that informs the development of a vastly different knowledge system, but this takes place in a context where there are already massive differences in how distinct groups interpret reality and share knowledge.
The hidden, invisible silos constructed by colonization run very deep. The disparate responses to the announcement of unmarked burials—“shock” by governments and some of the general public; confirmation and expression of what was already deeply and intimately known by Indigenous peoples—show how entrenched and enduring these silos are.
When these invisible silos are so deep, achieving justice and redress by dismantling the visible ones, such as the socio-economic gap, is much harder. Returning to Bahá’u’lláh’s terms: There is not a strong culture of “seeing with one’s own eyes” that allows, for example, the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ experiences, histories, and realities by governments or much of the population. As Kendi expresses it, there is a struggle to consistently “identify” and “describe” racism because of the power one constructed knowledge system has held in defining the predominant discourses and narratives about who we are, what we represent, and what our history and values are. Deeply entrenched architectures of social meanings and norms limit our ability to see the wrongs and harms that need to be confronted and to purposefully take action to address them.
The strength with which invisible silos operate can be seen in the debates and struggles Canada has had over the term and substance of efforts at “reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. For a few decades, reconciliation has been the predominant term used to describe efforts to address Canada’s colonial legacy and the injustices Indigenous peoples faced. To some, with good reason, it is an odd term to use in this context. One of the meanings of the term is the idea of a “return” to a proper state of affairs or relations. But, of course, in the history of Canada—as in many histories of racial oppression around the globe—there is no such state to return to; rather, we are all being challenged to play our role in forging something new and different.
Another common connotation of reconciliation is its emphasis on relationships and healing. While transforming relationships and effecting healing are vital to redressing enduring injustices, there are concerns that placing such a focus on these elements can result in an overemphasis on symbolic or performative acts, rather than impactful changes to oppressive structures and systems.
The struggle over the term reconciliation speaks to a more fundamental global question, which is how to change profoundly entrenched patterns of injustice and forge change that builds cohesion, resiliency, and redress in conditions of diversity and inclusion. This is a challenge for humanity everywhere, whether addressing the legacy of slavery and the history of racism in America, or the decolonization of former European colonies in Africa, or addressing the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, or responding to decades or even centuries of oppression and persecution of religious or ethnic minorities in places around the globe.
From this perspective, the Bahá’í writings propose a particular understanding of the dynamics and requirements of social change in the contemporary world. As briefly discussed earlier, the Bahá’í teachings emphasize that constructive and progressive social change must be understood through the concept of unity. Unity, or oneness, is the central concept of Bahá’í theology, ontology, and social theory—it is the foundation of the Divine, the structure of reality, and the relationship between human beings. Humanity is understood as fundamentally indivisible and interdependent, and there is a responsibility and imperative to manifest that oneness in all our social relations. In such an integrative cosmology and worldview, conflict and violence are anathema, as are prejudice and oppression. There exist a responsibility and a necessity to focus on building patterns of unity that make destructive patterns, and the reinforcement of arbitrary distinctions, increasingly difficult and rare. As levels of social cohesion, affinity, and connection are deepened at multiple levels, conditions of individual and collective well-being are increased.
This Bahá’í vision of unity necessitates recognizing difference. Unity and interconnection do not mean uniformity and sameness, but rather the opposite: complete respect and affirmation of distinctions. In an article exploring Bahá’í approaches to social change, Roshan Danesh (co-author of this article) and Lex Musta explained:
History is rife with egregious examples of hatred and oppression masquerading as so-called unity. Perhaps most evident in history has been the association of the term unity with a limited racial unity, which carries with it an assumption of the inferior status, and in some cases subhuman status, of much of humanity standing outside of that limited unification. Because its inclusiveness is limited rather than universal, this false unity, achieved through uniformity, is antithetical to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
Understanding unity also entails a particular orientation to the relationship between oneness and difference (sometimes referred to as the relationship between unity and diversity). Oneness and difference, in this vision, are seen as essential and integrated concepts that are not in tension as values or constructs. The Bahá’í writings use frequent metaphors to describe this relationship. Bahá’u’lláh states, “Please God, that we avoid the land of denial, and advance into the ocean of acceptance, so that we may perceive, with an eye purged from all conflicting elements, the worlds of unity and diversity, of variation and oneness. …”22https://bahai-library.com/pdf/d/danesh_musta_social_change.pdf
This concept of unity has many implications for how an action is taken in pursuit of social change, including the redress of historic and enduring injustices like those perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in Canada.
First, there exists within Baha’u’llah’s teaching of unity a stark critique and rejection of existing structures and systems of politics, law, economics, and society. The historical consciousness that Bahá’u’lláh advocates is one in which humanity is struggling to reflect the reality of its unity. In this historical consciousness, humanity finds itself, for the first time, both capable of and challenged in expressing that unity in a global form. This means, however, that existing structures and processes are not merely inadequate and insufficient; while they may have aspects that endure into the future, they also have exclusionary and divisive elements, histories, and principles that have contributed to injustice and harm toward certain peoples and groups. To say it another way: They are grounded in siloed knowledge systems, including those that have been the sources of colonization and oppression. The work of building social systems and structures that reflect the integrative worldview of the oneness of humanity requires a transformation of the status quo.
The Bahá’í writings describe forging this kind of shift—of building new forms of just and cohesive relations between peoples—as extremely challenging, requiring immense personal and collective sacrifice, as work that each and every one of us has a role to play a part in, and as a radical change. This necessary shift is a “turbulent transition.”23https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20030421_001/1#404609105 After all, if “justice is to be the ruling principle of social organization—then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging [global] realities have to be recast.”24“The Prosperity of Humankind.” A statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community Office of Public Information. Available at www.bahai.org/r/922127541 For example, existing economic models “will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.” Instead, new economic models are needed, “shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”25https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/bic/PRH/prh-5.html While new awareness and understanding are essential—indeed, shifts in individual consciousness are a necessary driver and engine of broader change—they are not nearly enough. For equal, just, and peaceful relations to exist in which humanity can face current collective challenges, sacrifice and hardship will inevitably have to be endured by individuals, communities, and societies. Long-entrenched patterns that reinforce inequality will have to be confronted.
In the context of the legacy of colonialism in Canada, one can see how there has been a propensity to sometimes pursue what may be seen as easy and to avoid or delay some of what is essential and hard. To put it even more critically, as some have done: There has been a propensity to disproportionately pursue symbolic or performative acts of reconciliation and to avoid making the necessary comprehensive political, economic, and structural shifts. So, for example, we see growing dialogue and debates about flying the Canadian flag at half-mast in response to the discovery of unmarked burials, the appropriateness of making land acknowledgements, the inclusion of Indigenous symbols and representation in ceremonies, the removal of statues, and the changing of placenames. While these types of actions are important and necessary—indeed, they are part of consciousness-raising and reflections of shifts in understanding—their limits are also clear. As Wilson-Raybould explains:
Symbolic acts do not lift a child out of poverty or help keep them with their family. They do not address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system. They do not recognize and implement Indigenous rights, uphold the human rights in the UN Declaration, or do anything else tangible. And, for these reasons, they cannot be a primary focus of our attention, energy, and effort. Yes, there is necessary value in some of these actions. We need them as part of the process of learning and understanding. But no, they should not be the leading focus of the work of reconciliation. Or taken to mean we have reconciled.26Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation, 293.
While symbolic action grows, it occurs in a context where foundational structural and systemic change has been extremely slow. Treaties, some of them hundreds of years old, are consistently violated. As already noted, the predominant law governing the lives of most Indigenous peoples in Canada is the Indian Act, a nineteenth-century racist and segregationist statute. While the collective constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples were entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, Canadian governments adopted the position—after amending the Constitution to include Indigenous rights—that the amendments meant nothing, forcing decades of lawsuits and hundreds of court decisions about their meaning. Meanwhile, the movement toward structural and systemic change that is ultimately needed—to advance the “turbulent transition” and for “justice to be the ruling principle of social organization”—is painfully slow.
The emphasis on the symbolic over the real, of image and form over substance, has not gone unnoticed. It carries with it the potential to make true reconciliation more difficult and to increase conflict. Increasingly, performing reconciliation has become a flashpoint of controversy. For example, leaders from across the political spectrum posed for images on fields adjacent to Indian Residential Schools where children were understood to be buried. This immediately drew criticism because, for example, governments continue to be found liable for systematically violating the basic human rights of Indigenous children, including for providing lesser services for Indigenous children in government care than for non-Indigenous children. This gap between symbolic and substantive action can further reinforce mistrust, make necessary partnering for real change more difficult, and deepen cynicism and skepticism. At the same time, in other segments of society—with less sympathy toward the work of reconciliation—there can be growing frustration as this work seems to grow and intensify. Hostility toward substantive action could become even more intransigent among some as they realize that the growing attention around symbolic measures is not considered to be addressing the real work and real needs.
The focus on what is easier and avoidance of what is harder in the pursuit of reconciliation has been persistent. It continues today when recognition of the need for fundamental change is voiced, but followed up with action that is only on the margins. From a Bahá’í perspective, the resistance to breaking these patterns and to doing the hard work of restructuring political, economic, and social structures and systems effectively denies the reality of justice and unity. If we want to “reconcile”—actually build social systems reflecting inclusion, justice, and unity—we have to be willing to transform the foundations. We cannot do it while being unwilling to look at fundamental changes to systems and structures that facilitated and shaped the injustices in the first place and how those have become entrenched and continue to reinforce invisible and visible silos that arbitrarily and destructively divide human beings.
Transforming Human Communities
Addressing the legacy of colonization of Indigenous peoples requires distinct and specific actions. Enduring and systemic injustices must be approached, understood, and challenged on their own terms, with efforts to redress them grounded in the actual experiences and knowledge of those that have endured them. General platitudes and prescriptions, drawn primarily from theoretical or conceptual frameworks or applying the experiences from other situations of injustice, not only are likely to be ineffective, but can even contribute to perpetuating some of the injustices that one is striving to address.
This development of solutions and change that recognizes, affirms, and reflects the experiences of Indigenous peoples has been difficult. Indigenous peoples have had to fight hard to gain respect for the starting point of efforts at change to be: “nothing about us, without us.” Even when governments recognize the need for change, there remain elements of paternalism and superiority that are reflected in their belief that they still know best.
But, there has been progress. One of the central signs has been the acceleration in recognition by Canadians of all backgrounds of the history of colonization in Canada; the need to gain ever-deeper understanding of Indigenous cultures, peoples, and experiences; and the imperative to support and take action themselves to advance reconciliation. A growing recognition of the centrality and vitality of Indigenous leadership, voices, and experiences and of how much learning has to take place from them and from each other has become discernible. To get to this point of recognition, which is still deepening, Indigenous peoples have had little choice but to struggle and advocate on the terrain of imposed political and legal systems—often engaging in adversarial court processes, action in communities and on the ground, and through political processes. But there are limits to what this can achieve, and now the country is in that “turbulent transition.” Injustice is being seen and understood more and more and is increasingly accepted as untenable. The work of dismantling laws, policies, and practices that have supported injustice is well engaged. But the essential and constructive task of building deep patterns of justice and unity now requires transformation, not reformation. This transformation applies to our human community, in which elements of the status quo in political, legal, social, and economic systems and structures are changed to reflect first values and principles supporting inclusion, unity, and just relations.
Positive and important change has occurred through existing systems and structures, and this must continue to be built. For example, in the 1920s, Indigenous leaders visited the Canadian Parliament to raise the alarm about the growing oppression and declining condition of their peoples and communities. In response to this advocacy, in 1927, the government amended the Indian Act to make it illegal for Indigenous peoples to obtain funds or legal counsel to advance rights issues, thereby shutting out these claims from the court system. Almost forty years later, when these limitations were removed, Indigenous peoples strategically turned to the courts as one avenue to drive change. Over time, the courts became a central venue and vehicle that tended to side with Indigenous peoples in their claims against the government. Ultimately, the courts have played a vitally important role in shifting some of the realities, policies, and conditions of Indigenous peoples—by, in effect, holding governments to account regarding human rights norms.
How much further can such efforts go? Courts do not write legislation, change policies, or undertake or implement practices. They do not build houses, feed children, or transfer land. They do not govern. Moreover, courts are not divorced from or outside of the structures and systems that created the injustice in the first place. Instead, they are institutions of a particular tradition that at one time were forces supporting colonization and at another time were part of addressing its legacy.
While the courts and other existing institutions, systems, and structures may help mitigate conditions of inequality and injustice, they do not have the ability to drive the deep-rooted systemic and structural changes needed to forge grounded patterns in unity. Instead, human communities—peoples—must do this, consciously acting to build new patterns between them and to express those patterns in transformed social relations, structures, and systems.
It is here that one can see some of the exciting and important dynamics of change emerging as the seeds of the transformation required. The fact that Canadians—particularly younger Canadians—increasingly know and understand Canada’s history and legacy of colonization is spurring new forms of action in families, neighbourhoods, and communities that would have been nearly unimaginable even a generation ago.
Local communities where much of the population, regardless of background, recognizes the roles Indigenous governments must play in stewarding the land, protecting the environment, and maintaining cultural, spiritual, and social traditions, are looking to support those roles as they are filled. Individuals, often young people, are engaging in social action in their communities and schools to advance reconciliation, for example, by supporting the creation of culturally safe spaces where learning and sharing with Indigenous peoples can appropriately occur. School systems are changing their curricula and ways of teaching to tell the true history of Canada and focus on what must be done today to advance reconciliation. Community programs are being designed to help new Canadians arriving from other parts of the world to learn and engage with Indigenous peoples to help forge new bonds and relationships that can transcend the destructive patterns that have dominated in so much of Canadian history.
There are also important shifts in social institutions that, historically, were complicit in colonization, and are now striving to be constructive forces in reconciliation. For example, religious institutions—such as the Catholic and Anglican churches—that played a direct and active role in perpetuating racism and injustice, we see ongoing formal and informal efforts at healing and redress, such as the apology by Pope Francis in 2022, with much work for redress remaining to be done. At the same time, some other religious communities that did not play this direct historical role are examining how to create patterns within their communities that are just and inclusive, and how to participate in society in ways that foster true reconciliation. The Bahá’í community of Canada, as one example, has for many decades publicly expressed the daunting responsibility it views its own community having to strive to be an example of reconciliation and a positive agent for transformation. As the Bahá’í community stated in its submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:
A great deal of work must be done to right wrongs, to create justice, and to educate a new generation. The Canadian Bahá’í Community would like to express the caution, no doubt very much on the minds of the members of the Commission, that instant solutions are not possible. We would like to offer our assistance should the Commission or Canada’s leaders, Aboriginal leaders or others, wish our help. We are a small community, but we are committed to working towards the creation of justice and unity, healing and well-being.27https://opa.bahai.ca/en_documents/submission-to-the-royal-commission-on-aboriginal-peoples-1993/
From a Bahá’í perspective, this moment in history is one of rupture. We cannot build the new—transformed communities characterized by justice and unity—on infirm foundations shaken and fractured by histories of injustice and violence, silos and division. Therefore, while we must continue to mitigate every enduring harm and make life better for peoples and communities that have suffered intergenerational prejudice and discrimination – and use every tool we can to do so – we must also, at the same time, be engaged in building anew the foundations for structures and systems that reject the possibility of such divisive and destructive actions from the outset.
In this vision, the work of reconciliation must move forward on multiple paths at once. There must be new knowledge and new discourses that lead to new actions by individuals and groups. There must be changes to laws, policies, and practices that recognize Indigenous peoples, governments, laws, traditions, and rights. There must be new forms of agreements and understandings that structure proper, sovereign relations between Indigenous and Canadian governments. But ultimately, while essential, none of these efforts alone will be enough to address the legacy of colonization or prepare for present or future challenges. To truly reconcile, human beings will also have to forge new spaces and patterns of community at the grassroots, striving to reflect the dynamics of peaceful co-existence and just relations from the beginning. This has to be done consciously, in a learning and humble mode, in which no peoples, worldviews, or knowledge systems are rendered invisible, and hidden, divisive silos are actively and visibly rejected. It is this work that is now emerging and that all of us have the capacity to foster to the best of our abilities.
The Bahá’í writings often use an analogy to describe the types of change reflected in shifts such as the work of true reconciliation–the analogy of the struggle of a human being coming of age.28https://universalhouseofjustice.bahai.org/involvement-life-society/20130302_001 At such a time, “widely accepted practices and conventions, cherished attitudes and habits, are one by one being rendered obsolete”29https://universalhouseofjustice.bahai.org/involvement-life-society/20130302_001 as new imperatives take over. True reconciliation is emblematic of these new imperatives, and achieving it–like addressing other pernicious forms of injustice and creating enduring conditions of peace and harmony–will require human affairs to be “utterly reorganized.” We must all be persistent and audacious in our efforts to advance and achieve this outcome.
Dr. Roshan Danesh, SJD, KC, has advised First Nations, the Canadian federal government, the British Columbia provincial government, local governments, and industry on reconciliation. He has also advised international organizations, including the United Nations, and civil society on issues of peace education and peace building. Roshan completed his doctoral studies in constitutional law at Harvard Law School.
Douglas White III (Kwulasultun), JD, KC, is a member and former Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. He is a practicing lawyer and currently is the Chair of the BC First Nations Justice Council. He has been granted Distinguished Alumni Awards from both Vancouver Island University (2013) and the University of Victoria (2015).