Every so often one encounters a book that should be required reading for all Canadians. Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance is one such book. The moment I cracked open the first chapter, I knew I had to use this in my English class of adult learners (all of whom, at the moment, are Anishinaabeg from Treaty 9 nations). Jesse Wente appears in a documentary, Reel Injun, that I often use in my English course, and I’ve always seen him as a strong voice regarding the representation of Indigenous people in media. By the way, if you want to read the first chapter of Unreconciled, it’s excerpted here in The Walrus. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The subtitle explains exactly what to expect from this book. Each chapter is a self-contained essay, yet the book as a whole is a unified narrative of Wente’s childhood and professional career and his experience navigating Indigeneity in Canada. Much of what Wente discusses involves the idea of not being “Indian enough.” The concept of Indigeneity, of who is Indigenous, is incredibly complex and fraught here in Canada. I’m not going to summarize it in any way that does it justice here, but Wente does an excellent job explaining how colonialism—implemented through official government policies like the Indian Act—quite literally created official definitions of Indigenous people. And it’s fucked up that we use these colonial definitions. At the same time, movements towards self-identification as the standard have created situations where settlers can exploit opportunities created for Indigenous people, such as access to scholarships or specific academic positions.
These issues are complicated not because Indigenous people have made them so but because the federal, provincial, and territorial governments have done their best to make it difficult to be Indigenous in this country. Maybe people who wouldn’t take a free history course to learn this will listen to Wente’s stories here. His essays tackle so many interconnected ideas, from tokenism to scapegoating to representation. All of these intersect along axes of liberation and power, as he examines the points in his life where he has been free/not free to choose, points where he has had the power to determine something or when that power has been an illusion. It’s telling that Wente’s experience is not linear: one moment he’s enjoying a great deal of success and good times as a part of TIFF, and the next he’s resigning because of how the festival handled the selection of films about Indigenous people. This is an important mirror of Indigenous issues here in Canada. By one measure it’s possible to say Indigenous people have made progress wresting back rights. Yet by other measures, colonial Canada is still alive and kicking and oppressing nations left and right.
This is the thesis around which Wente constructs the aptly titled Unreconciled. But he does it from a different angle than many others might take: this is a political book that doesn’t focus overly much on politics or history (though it is there, if you look for it). Wente focuses on pop culture, on Canadian institutions like the CBC and TIFF, and on his own family history. At one point he says that the solutions to the damage of colonization are well known and documented in reports from various bodies (RCAP and the TRC being but two among many). Much like the issue of climate change, it’s not so much what should we do but when will we have the will to do it? Wente does not mince words when he says that the government refuses to undertake the work of real reconciliation, co-opting the word instead, because it refuses to acknowledge truth.
If you have been learning about and following Indigenous issues and history here in Canada at all, then very little that Wente says here will be new to you … but he says it so very well. His writing is incisive, vulnerable, powerful, to the point where I really do just want to give this book to everyone. Wente didn’t have to do this for us, didn’t have to mine his life and share these stories with everybody. The fact that he has done so is a gift, and the best way we can honour it is to do exactly what he says at the end of the first chapter: listen to him and other Indigenous people, stop centreing ourselves as settlers, and use our position as the majority population of the country to pressure our leaders into listening in turn.
Unreconciled pairs perfectly with Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Both are powerful and personal memoirs that enlighten and educate us about Indigenous issues in Canada. Complete the trifecta with Seven Fallen Feathers and you’ll be well on your way to a better understanding of what’s going on in this country.