Moving from symbolic to tangible advocacy

Online Editor
November 5, 2021
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

C/O Don Craig

True advocacy entails more than just empty words

By: Ardena Bašić, Contributor

cw: abuse, neglect

Given the increased attention on human rights issues and the overall mistreatment of the Indigenous population, reconciliation has gained an increase in discussion in many institutions. 

Professors and leaders are now acknowledging the ownership of the land they work and live on. The orange shirt has become a symbol of support for victims of the residential school system. Political leaders are making promises to address the issue of water advisories in Indigenous communities and inequities in education and housing. 

While these symbolic actions exemplify desires to make positive changes, they are still only symbolic acts. Whether these intentions lead to actual change is contingent on whether leaders and members of society translate their intentions and words into tangible action.

Advocacy may very well begin with words, promises and acknowledging mistakes and atrocities of the past. However, as it pertains to the issues that many marginalized and oppressed groups such as the Indigenous population of so-called Canada experience, words represent only the preliminary step in building a better world.

Both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have given formal apologies to the Indigenous community in regards to the residential school system. In 2021, Canadian catholic bishops also communicated their remorse for the role of religious bodies in the residential school system. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church and Pope have not followed suit. Calls for the church to take accountability for its role in the residential school system became widespread this past year given the many bodies of Indigenous children found in unmarked graves across Canada in what used to be residential schools. 

Some action has been taken on the part of the Canadian federal government to follow up on their apologies and address the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For example, the government has budgeted for their intent to address the lack of access to clean drinking water, develop better health and social services on and near reserves and contribute to preserving Indigenous languages. 

Moreover, Sept. 30, 2021 marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This day sought to commemorate the victims of the residential school system and entailed memorials and other events held across the nation. 

There are also calls for institutions to remove statues and names of people who were involved in the residential school system. For example, Ryerson University will be changing its name, given its eponym, Egerton Ryerson, was an important architecture in designing the residential school system. However, changing an institution’s name is only a symbolic act and must be followed by more tangible action to support reconciliation and contribute to social progress. 

When Stephen Harper apologized to Indigenous communities years ago, he failed to fund significant projects like the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Justin Trudeau’s follow up was equally as inadequate, as the campaign promises he made to Indigenous communities during his 2015 election campaign have still not been fulfilled as of publication. 

There are still water advisories in place and the presence of inadequate infrastructure and services across Indigenous communities despite promises to address these issues. In fact, government funding for awards that serve to honour leaders in Indigenous communities has decreased. It is clear the government wants to take accountability of its past actions and do its work in laying the foundation for reconciliation, but this is not followed by proper, tangible action.

Only when tangible actions are taken after communicating an intent to do so will greater equity become a possibility. It is time Canadian society and its government follow suit on their promises and intents and invest more towards showing accountability and working towards reconciliation. 

In sum, symbolic reconciliation is communication of an intention to right the wrongs of the past. However, this needs to be followed up by real action in order for true societal change to occur.

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