3. Chief Robert Joseph
Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation
November 17, 2015
Age: 76| First Appearance
He wasn’t quite seven when he was taken from his family home and sent to St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay, a village on Cormorant Island off northern Vancouver Island. For the next 11 years, Robert Joseph’s life included abuse of the most disturbing and painful kind. Those experiences have left him with deep psychological scarring and haunting memories. But that pain would also give Joseph a gift: the power to speak with authority and authenticity on the subject of reconciliation. Today, Chief Robert Joseph, 76, is a leading voice—perhaps the leading voice—in the discussion about how to bridge the aboriginal-non-aboriginal divide in this country.
A hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation (on Watson Island off the central B.C. coast), Joseph is the founder of Reconciliation Canada. He has described its mandate as encouraging and fostering reconciliation “through dialogue, economic reconciliation, educational outreach, and creating partnerships between multiple segments of society so we can have a more inclusive Canada where we can share prosperity.” His group organized the nationwide Walk for Reconciliation marches, including one in Vancouver in 2013 that drew thousands in the pouring rain and ended with a stirring plea by Dr. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., for political action to deal with the unresolved issues of the First Nations in Canada.
Joseph was among those the federal government consulted on the wording of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 official apology to the country’s First Nations for the residential school system. He was an advisor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to Indian Residential School Resolutions Canada. He has served in an executive capacity with the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society, an organization that provides crisis counselling and support for residential school survivors.
His eloquence is a great force because he speaks without animosity. “Everything Robert Joseph talks about is out of love and care,” says former Tsawwassen First Nations chief Kim Baird. “He has a powerful story to tell and a vision for reconciliation that is compelling. He touches a lot of people with his call for healing.”
Joseph is helping shape the conversation around the role First Nations will play in Canada’s future. Part of that discussion involves coming to grips with the country’s racist past, one outlined in grim detail in the landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released in June. It concluded that Canada’s treatment of aboriginal children at residential schools amounted to cultural genocide, and it called for a nation-to-nation relationship between the Crown and its first peoples. Among its 94 recommendations was a demand that Canada honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the federal government has so far viewed as a non-binding document.
In recent years the Supreme Court of Canada has put aboriginal people on a new economic footing with a ground-breaking ruling that gave First Nations rights over their ancestral lands unless their ownership had been signed away in a treaty. The historic Williams decision of 2014 gave them powerful leverage over development on their land—which, as the Christy Clark government is learning, has far-reaching implications for the province’s resource-industry aspirations. As the First Nations gain new powers and new confidence, forging partnerships is crucial. It’s work that requires patience, understanding, and an outsized capacity for forgiveness—qualities embodied by Chief Robert Joseph.
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