R is for Reconciliation and our Heart Garden

Saskatoon Public Library: Read for Reconciliation

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report, Canada was ushered into an era of reconciliation. The TRC (2015) defines reconciliation as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country… [which requires an] awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour” (p.6-7). And yet despite this fairly comprehensive definition of reconciliation and despite the 94 detailed and specific Calls to Action, we Canadians seem to be somewhat at a loss as to what exactly we should be doing to promote reconciliation.

A condo development project is being billed as reconciliation. So are numerous reading lists.

Ottawa Citizen

When talking about the environment, ‘greenwashing’ is the practice of “unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness in an attempt to gain market share” (Dahl, 2010, p.A247).

In the same vein when talking about reconciliation, ‘redwashing’ is an “attempt by a corporation to paint itself as “benevolent” — a good neighbour — through sponsorship schemes for Indigenous education, art and culture. It is the process of covering up the detrimental effects of corporate initiatives with friendly slogans and lump sum donations to Indigenous communities” (Thomas-Muller, Mar. 20, 2017, par. 6).

As individual Canadians, how much of what we are doing under the umbrella of reconciliation is actually redwashing?

Are we painting ourselves as good neighbours while we continue to benefit from and perpetuate colonialism?


On June 3, 2015 as part of the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Heart Garden was planted at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. School children wrote messages of reconciliation on hearts and planted them in the ground. In the spirit of reconciliation, students at my own school were inspired to create our own Heart Garden in the Spring of 2016. We collected donations and applied for grants, and were able to make a permanent garden space where each year we could host our own Heart Garden ceremony. One of the goals of the project was to attend to the TRC Call to Action #80, to commemorate the legacy of residential schools and work towards reconciliation.

All of our students learned and continue to learn about the history of residential schools in Canada. Last year students created both a Project of Heart tile as well as a Heart for our pathway to the Heart Garden. It has been a beautiful project but I wonder about how much reconciliation is actually involved.

If reconciliation is all about relationships, did we create any new relationships with this garden space? Or am I part of this redwashing?

Part of the problem is that reconciliation is hard to measure. Reconciliation is not like carbon. There is no reconciliation footprint calculator. I cannot type in my actions and get a number. Moreover, reconciliation is a mutual process. I cannot judge my actions to be reconciliation on my own.

Reconciliation cannot be an isolated Settler event.

Reconciliation is also necessarily a slow process. Our history of colonization is hundreds of years in the making. It will not be undone on my schedule. But that does not stop me from being in a hurry. I am in a hurry to fix this, to right these wrongs, to reconcile with my Indigenous neighbours. But reconciliation cannot be hurried.

In Keeper ‘N Me by Richard Wagamese (2006), Anishinabe elder, Keeper, talks about the differences between White and Anishinabe cultures. “[T]he whiteman’s been inventin’ things for a long time now. They kinda got used to the speed of their world gettin’ faster’n faster with each new invention. Got used to dealin’ with time diff’rent even though they were just like us once” (p.4).

Is our current framework for reconciliation another of whiteman’s inventions, intended to speed up a resolution to the “Indian problem”?

And what if reconciliation is not about relationships but actually about land?

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred (2015) writes that reconciliation can only come through “reconnecting indigenous people to their homelands in a real way” (par.9). If the theft of land is ultimately the problem at the root of colonization, then any hope at reconciliation must involve returning land.

“Two hundred and fifty years ago, it was about the land. Twenty five years ago, it was about the land. And still today, it is all about the land.” (Alfred, 2015, par. 8).

Photo by Shaney Komulainen

Yet by and large we are no longer talking about land. In the 1990s at the height of the Oka crisis, our national dialogue was about land, but now the rhetoric has taken a “colonial turn” (Alfred, par.7) to vague discussions of reconciliation. It has become a conversation about book lists and, in my case, gardens.

Alfred writes that until the land becomes central to our national discussion, “reconciliation will remain a smokescreen for recolonization” (par. 10).

So what about our Heart Garden? If reconciliation is about land, where does a school garden fit in?

In a corner of our Heart Garden, in a large heart shaped bed, we have set aside a space for plants that are native to Saskatchewan. Last year we planted wildflowers that started as seedlings given to us by the First Nations University of Canada. We also started a number of flowers from seed and we mistakenly planted pansies in this bed. Pansies are European plants that have settled quietly in our midst. This year we will have to dig them up and replant them in another space. Gardening has made us see what colonization looks like at the level of flora and fauna.

At the beginning of June, we will hold our second annual Heart Garden ceremony, following the call from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to participate in their Honouring Memories, Planting Dreams initiative.

We will once again learn about Canada’s history of residential schools and hold an assembly to share our learning with our community of neighbours, parents and friends. We will reach out to our local Aboriginal organization and invite survivors of residential schools to join us again. We will continue to work on building these relationships between our school and our Indigenous community.

I don’t know if reconciliation is about relationships or about land.

Maybe its both.

And in both cases, I don’t know if our Heart Garden qualifies. I don’t know where on the rubric it falls.

I know it is not giving the land back.

But maybe that is too big of a step. Maybe that is moving too fast.

Maybe ultimately reconciliation will be about decolonization, about restitution, about returning at least some of the land. But for right now, in order to get to the place where those ideas are even possible to contemplate, we need to start somewhere smaller.

Maybe we need to start in a garden, learning about the land and our history as we nurture and grow the plants and the imaginations of children.




Alfred, G. T. (2015, July 10). Twenty-five years after Oka, it’s still all about the land. Montreal Gazette Retrieved from: http://montrealgazette.com/news/national/opinion-twenty-five-years-after-oka-its-still-all-about-the-land.

Dahl, R. (2010). Greenwashing: Do You Know What You’re Buying. Environmental Health Perpectives. 118(6), p. A246-A252. Retrieved from:  https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/118-a246/

Thomas-Muller, C. (2017, Mar. 20). We need to start calling out corporate ‘redwashing’. CBC News: Opinion Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/corporate-redwashing-1.4030443

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf

Wagamese, R. (2006). Keeper ‘N Me. Canada: Anchor Canada.

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