Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Meeting and Trust

Today is a gathering of First Nations leaders to discuss present problems and future possibilities, particularly with regard to the relationship of First Nations with the Canadian government. Prime Minister Steven Harper is attending along with Governor General David Johnston.

Moving forward in a way that respects the rights, traditions and needs of First Nations people is necessary for addressing issues such as education, poverty and housing that face many living on as well as off reserves. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke about this need for moving forward while respecting the needs and rights of First Nations people, but he also spoke first about the need to "repair trust" before (or perhaps as) real progress is made. In his words, "To rebuild the partnership, we must rebuild the trust on which it must be based."

The language of partnership and rebuilding trust struck me as particularly potent. It recognizes that in order for issues to resolved, or even meaningfully worked on, the parties involved have to be able to trust each other. Such trust, of course, has not been historically possible, given the legacy of residence schools and other issues.

We will be having other entries on this topic in the coming week, some by guest writers, as we see what comes out of this meeting--for the meeting today is only a start, a point of discussion that is meant to bring much needed changes that work to meet the needs (and rights) of all involved. We have been speaking over the past few weeks on this blog about rights and justice, and the word "wisdom" keeps coming up. Though difficult to define, the statement I quoted above from Chief Atleo is a good place to start, I think. So my question for today is, keeping talk of "rights" and "wisdom" in dialogue together, how does trust come into the equation? When dealing with questions of meeting needs and rights wisely, in a way that really fits the situation, where and how do we build trust?


  1. This is interesting stuff.

    It seems to me that trust will need to be built in the same way that it always has been: by trusting. Only when each side shows that it CAN be trusted will trust start to build. It takes trust to make trust.

    One problem though is that this trust-building process is already derailed. You noted it yourself when you mentioned “the legacy of residence schools and other issues.” But that’s only the half of it. In fact, BOTH SIDES have certain prejudices or deep resentments that need to be resolved. Harper, for instance, has already shown what his feelings are toward First Nations peoples when he accused Attawapiskat leaders of mismanagement. Whether true or not, his stance echoes the rather prevalent and cruel generalization of First Nations peoples as, well, poor managers...

    If Harper is going in to the conversation with this prejudice intact then all we’re going to see moving forward is spectacle, not the beginning of a new relationship of trust between peoples.

    Another problem though, the deeper and unspoken problem I would say, is cultural, or striking the right cultural balance. First Nations peoples have historically struck a rather poor balance between participating in Western culture and upholding their own heritage. They have wanted both but they have yet to find an arrangement that gives them both a strong identity and place in the Western world. Instead, or with current/historic arrangements, many First Nations peoples are still living in third world conditions. Or indeed, while Atleo speaks of “two nations partnering”, other chiefs are talking about how upset they are that no new funding was announced. (Do they not see that such an announcement would only further entrench First Nations peoples as dependents versus affirm their place as an independent nation and partner?...)

    Now, I am not suggesting that Westerners are not complicit in this, or that we haven’t pushed First Nations peoples into this dysfunctional cultural arrangement, but only that this is a serious problem that needs to be resolved. The extreme solutions are First Nations peoples either reverting to their quite beautiful and original way of life or else fully entering into and embracing Western practices, so that their First Nations status is no longer a status that matters (instead of two nations there would indeed be only one).

    My hope is that in between these two extremes is a good compromise. One that takes the best of both worlds and that fosters a generation of First Nations peoples that is no longer struggling to get by on federal funding but that instead turns the Western stereotype of First Nations peoples on its head.

    With such a cultural vision in place both sides can then start building trust and entering into healthy partnerships.

  2. Having lived all of my 57 years in Canada I have to say that this is the one issue that I most despair of ever resolving. The words change a little. The announcements and plans come out, and momentarily there seems to be some reason for optimism, but things never actually change.

    Perhaps a climate of mistrust and mutual doubt is a better way to start than a climate of sincere hope and ready trust. Whatever is derailing our attempts over and over again is either so well hidden or so comfortable that no one ever deals with it. Maybe a real battle will kick up the dust and allow something different to emerge.

    It seems like funding is always at the centre of the discussions because discussing anything else (like integration, nationhood, treaty claims, etc.) always leads to an impasse. Perhaps sincere (rather than merely formal expression of) trust and respect is just not compatible with always being in negotiations.

    Germaine Greer likened the situation of the minority aboriginal population in Australia to apartheid but an apartheid achieved without effort. I'm not sure that Greer had any solutions but at least she was thinking outside of the box when she suggested that white Australians needed to become Aboriginees.

    Sitting in a yurt at an Occupy meeting where possible eviction was being discussed, I heard someone mention that the park land was half owned by St. James church and half by the city. Immediately following that observation one of the First Nations people there said "let's first discuss whose land this really is". I recall thinking that this was either an example of an entrenched single issue or a possible doorway to transcending the artificiality of law (thus allowing the meeting to keep attention on the goals implicit in the slogan "we are the 99%", which are not about how to legally finesse maintaining a campsite).

    I'll be looking forward to further contributions on this subject, for sure.

  3. Thanks for posing this question Allyson. I think the cultivation of trust that truly serves any particular context in which needs and rights are being discerned, must be constituted by some form of engagement of individual and collective memories of the parties involved by way of narrative disclosure. The tradition of epideictic rhetoric that extends further back even than Isocrates' "On the Peace" is in the service of this type of discourse. In her work "Rhetoric: An Historical Introduction", Wendy Olmstead highlights Eugene Garver's study of the "trust-building" nature of epideictic rhetoric in the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Garver’s work traces how “the South Africans faced the problem of finding a shared memory and a ‘common ethos’ for their new country....Democratic governance requires deliberation, persuasion, and compromise, but ‘these all presuppose the trustworthiness of words.’ Trauma produces severe distrust.” Central features of Garver’s study include the risk-taking nature of the Committee through its willingness “to explore victims’ stories”; the “multiplicity of truths [including ‘personal or narrative truth...and healing or restorative truth’]” affirmed in the discussions; the way in which “‘relatives of victims preferred the facts to the false consolations of ignorance’ and...‘the truth to vengeance or even justice’”; and the way in which “making knowledge truly common...creates ‘collective responsibility as opposed to individual guilt.’” This is an admittedly generic response, but my point is that the discourse revolving around trust building that is characterized by language of acceptance, acknowledgement and even consolation in the honest appraisal of memories of the discussion participants is truly distinct from the discourse concerned with deliberation and even discernment about needs and rights.

    1. I think you have a point, Jennifer, when you say that "discourse revolving around trust building that is characterized by the language of acceptance, acknowledgement and even consolation... is truly distinct from the discourse concerned with deliberation and even discernment about needs and rights." They are distinct things, and in some situations, one might make sense over the other. You mention South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and note the work of Garver, who was looking at how the committee worked to find "shared memory" and a "'common ethos' for the country." When you have a significant portion of a population committed to such a thing, and also given the mandate to undertake such work, then language of acceptance, acknowledgement and consolation is necessary for opening up the work the committee is trying to do. But in such a case, there is already a commitment to finding a common ethos for the country. Finding that ethos is the primary concern of those involved; there is an attempt being made to heal the group as a whole.

      I am no expert in the area of relationships between First Nations and the Canadian Government, (I grew up outside Canada, and have been trying to educate myself on the issues since coming here) but from what I have read and seen, the mandate both parties are working under here is different than finding a common ethos for a country. In the best light, it is not a question of integrating two communities into a healthy whole, but of forming healthy partnerships that nevertheless maintain boundaries. That, at least, has been my read of this situation.

      In situations aiming at re-establishing healthy partnerships where there has been terrible hurt or harm, having discernment about needs and rights can be a vital step to healing and repair. But, and this is where what I think what you say about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee work comes in, part of re-building/establishing healthy partnerships also gets into issues of trust. I think some of the things you name--exploring victims stories, and dealing with multiple notions of truth, such as personal, narrative, healing and restorative truth" is part of the way forward. Acknowledging a multiplicity of truths can allow us to understand better the way to discern needs and rights. Also, it seems to me that acknowledging needs and rights exist in damaged relationships is one step in rebuilding trust. But what do you think?

  4. Allyson, thanks for pointing to the crucial distinctions that need to be made when discussing rhetoric, and the discourse that rhetoric serves, between any two contexts. Let me admit right away that, like you, I have a great deal to learn about the matrix of matters involved in the relationship and discourse between First Nations and the Canadian Government. What your original question posed for me, and continues to pose, is whether any general principles about trust-building discourse can be gleaned, including the important distinctions that go along with such principles. I truly appreciate your closing reflection that it is precisely among such “damaged relationships” that needs and rights will be identified. I do think that this insight opens up a multitude of further reflections for all parties involved. It is an insight that certainly works with the multitude of truths that must also be acknowledged. You’ve left me to ponder as well a host of other questions: What rhetoric best serves the goal of ‘rebuilding’ relationships, and how is that distinct from rhetoric serving the goal of a “common ethos”? Moreover, while the latter goal seems to assume the former, is that always really the case? And likewise, does the first goal not imply a goal of a shared ethos? Is not an honoring of boundaries always involved in any discourse? Does the nature of the honoring of boundaries shift at different points in the cultivation of the relationship of the discourse partners? Thank you.