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Reconciliation in the Charitable Sector

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Sector Discussions
Circular stream around trees. Treaty 7 Territory of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tsuut'ina Nations. Banff National Park.

Reconciliation crosses sectors, generations, and time. Whether your organization is currently engaged in reconciliation work, or just looking to start, we are all involved in this movement that requires us to acknowledge the truths of our collective histories with Indigenous peoples and work towards reconciling for our future.

As I write this, a group of Indigenous women are holding a vigil down the street from the Imagine Canada head office. They are drawing attention to the Indigenous youth suicide crises and lack of resources provided for Indigenous youth living on reserve. This manifestation, among many, highlights the urgency of the reconciliation movement. It looks forward to the generations to come that will be affected by the actions that the government, citizens and organizations put forward to repair relations and respect the cultures and histories of these lands.

The charitable sector has a role here. It is known that the sector is one of great diversity in both size and scope, but there is also a lot that brings us together. Reconciliation in Canada is a movement that we can all come together on. That was evident through the discussions with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sector leaders that I spoke to on how the charitable sector can engage with the reconciliation movement. These leaders included: Chief Joseph, Ambassador of Reconciliation Canada; Bruce MacDonald, our CEO of Imagine Canada; Marc St. Dennis, the Reconciliation and Research Coordinator for the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada; and Kris Archie, Executive Director of The Circle. Their insight and guidance informed the following discussion around the charitable sector and reconciliation.

What is reconciliation?  

The land that many of us work and live on has a long and complex history of injustice towards Indigenous peoples. The findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), released in 2015, seek to share and address these histories and provide us with a way forward. The 94 calls to action included in the TRC have informed what is required for our society to engage in reconciliation. And although there are specific calls to action, this movement is neither a project or program. From Marc St. Dennis’s perspective, he defines reconciliation as an “ongoing relationship,” more specifically a relationship that “has to be integrated into the way that we live and the way that we do things so that everything we do as a community or organization is just reconciliation in action.”

What is our role?

Although charities aren’t given a devoted call to action within the TRC report, there are numerous intersections the sector can engage in. From storytelling to capacity building to allyship, the charitable sector has skills that can contribute to meaningful acts of reconciliation. As a caring and generous sector, Kris Archie explains that the philanthropic sector should not be overlooked as having a major voice in policy, research, advocacy and service provision in this country.

Chief Joseph describes the unique role of charities in reconciliation. He explains that “it is through our charitable organizations community that we can do reconciliation initiatives outside of the political and government processes. More often than not, the community societal reconciliation process is ignored, and this is one place where charitable organizations can support the whole process of reconciliation.”

Taking the time to engage

Moving to a place of action has often been a stalling point for organizations trying to engage in this work. As a way to sustainably and effectively engage, sector leaders offered their insight into how to get involved.  

What was top of mind for most leaders was the importance of education. Reconciliation happens at a number of different levels, but the personal level is where it often begins.

Kris describes how this practice requires a fundamental shift from typical grantmaking practices, in that it engages you in the kind of work that deeply impacts people on both a professional and personal level. She also provides examples of ways the board and executive leaders can support staff and grant advisors by providing time for people to educate themselves, and to have this education impact the practices and processes of their organization, such as grantmaking and investment decisions.  

These actions may look like:

  • taking time to read the TRC and providing copies of these reports to staff to make it accessible;
  • bringing in facilitators  to do training on intercultural fluency to better understand local Indigenous culture and history;
  • participating in the blanket exercise provided by KAIROS;
  • and thinking about how their money is created and invested.

Marc echoes this personal level of education and adds that “we’re all learning. It’s not something that can be achieved 100%. It’s like reconciliation in that way - it’s a continuous process.”

Chief Joseph also offers guidance into actions we can all engage in at a personal level. He speaks of heightening awareness and consciousness of the people around us and to “treat each other like human beings, love each other, honour each other, respect each other.” This can be an effective entry point into this work that is accessible for all of us looking to engage in reconciliation.

It takes courage

To change our outlook and begin thinking differently about the perceptions we hold can be daunting work, but being courageous and honest is what leaders advise. Kris explains that “we are entering into a space in philanthropy that we haven’t really occupied before and that’s when it becomes increasingly important that people are willing to do their personal work. It’s why we need to stay in such an invitational frame.”  Discomfort, risk-taking, and failure are a part of the process. She adds that “we need to keep inviting each other to be in these conversations and to act and to fail and to mess it up and to do it again and again” and reminds us that “discomfort will be absolutely necessary for folks who want to do work related to reconciliation.”

Bruce MacDonald specifically acknowledges that this work requires a different approach from both the service delivery and resourcing sides of organizations. An example of this adjustment of thinking is building trust and acknowledging truths. Bruce suggests that “sector leaders would be well advised to say: ‘we’re going to need lots of trust building meetings before we get into action.’ For action oriented people, that requires an adjustment of thinking.”

Additionally, when looking to engage - just ask! Marc explains that “reconciliation is fundamentally about relationships, and building those relationships, and it cannot be done without reaching out.” Finding your local reconciliation organization and learning about local Indigenous culture in your area are actions that have been highlighted in Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky’s 150 Acts of Reconciliation article, that are crucial parts of engaging in these types of relationships.

What can we do better?

We must make reconciliation meaningful if it is to be impactful. In reflecting on what we can do better, Chief Joseph explains that “the things that create cause and concern for us is our misunderstanding of each other, the racism that exists, and the simple fear of engaging with each other. I think as we move into the future, we have to mitigate those barriers, like racism, hatred and discrimination.”

He adds: “Now we’re at this moment of convergence of heart and mind, and we are truly dedicated to bringing about reconciliation. We’re going to try to make sure that nobody gets left behind. That every child born here has the opportunity, the support, and grows up with optimism and self-respect and dignity.”

Moving forward

With a movement that is this systemic, adapting our organizations to sustain momentum towards reconciliation is crucial. A big part of this piece is how organizations adapt and thrive in changing times. When thinking about moving forward, Bruce believes that “for organizations to remain relevant, they need to adapt to change,” with a spirit of working together that is genuine, honest and authentic.

Since the release of the TRC in 2015, a greater engagement in conversation and action has been noticed by Indigenous sector leaders. Marc reflects on his own experience, noting that he has seen “a noticeable increase in particular in non-Indigenous organizations and communities in reaching out and asking for guidance in creating meaningful reconciliation movements.”

Kris speaks to the willingness of the philanthropic sector to take risks and “be out ahead of the crowd in terms of what needs to be done.” More specifically, she points to the Declaration of Action signed by various organizations and funders in Canada’s philanthropic community who have committed to learn and remember, understand and acknowledge, and participate and act in the work of reconciliation.

Chief Joseph also adds that the increase in initiatives “bodes really well for the future of reconciliation in this country.” He expresses his excitement for the “continued possibilities and the potential for moving forward all the time.”

In this crucial time of opportunity and urgency for this movement, what is clear is that the charitable sector has a role in learning and taking action in the journey towards reconciliation.


Photo credit: Treaty 7 Territory of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tsuut’ina Nations. Banff National Park.

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Submitted by Marlo Turner Ritchie on
Thank you for this! I plan on referencing and using this a ton in my work (-:

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