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The first time Chief Robert Joseph got close to a white man was when he was taken into St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay at age six. The Gwawaenuk hereditary chief and member of the Order of Canada and Order of B.C. remained in there for almost 11 years.
In his new memoir, Namwayut — We Are All One: A Pathway to Reconciliation, Joseph recounts his life from his childhood through to his inspiring leadership and guidance in peacemaking and reconciliation. At its large heart the book is a guide to collective change and a roadmap to higher humanity.
Postmedia News reached out to Joseph and asked him about his life and work:
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
A: After the release of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, I wanted to keep the stories of survivors alive so that we could remind Canadians joining the process of just what our history involved. As the former executive director for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, my work was committed to getting survivors to tell their stories and being present to listen. While mine is one of many, it is critically important that these stories are told and heard.
Q: Can you please explain what the word Namwayut means?
A: It’s a Kwak’wala word that is emblematic of our world view: it means, literally, “we are all one.” It is an acknowledgment that everything is connected, all of humanity. Namwayut is an important concept because it creates sanctity about our interconnectedness as people.
Q: Your openness and ability to share very “deep vulnerabilities” shows others there is a way forward. How does talking about your own personal trauma continue to help you?
A: Trauma is a destructive force, not just for Indigenous people but all Canadians. We never know who in our lives have been traumatized. But understanding our own trauma is how we work our own healing. We’re imperfect human beings. We have to remain diligent about our willingness to heal, but also to share our healing. We all need each other.
Q: A vision many decades ago led you to sobriety. Does that vision still play into your life today?
A: If we can’t love ourselves, how can we love others? The years I, and 150,000 other little kids, spent in residential school meant that we were so quickly dehumanized, disrespected, valueless. When you grow up in that vacuum, having an epiphany is often your last chance to recognize your worth. For me, my vision allowed me to understand that I belonged, and I was loved, and this was the cornerstone for everything I began to believe about myself. One monumental moment in the depths of despair can yield to a sense of knowing that love is the centre of all things, because love is who we are.
Q: You have worked with social change leaders around the world. What is a common thread through your work and theirs?
A: The work is really closely related to the idea of Namwayut. We all have one goal: we see divisions taking place and we try in our own ways to remove those barriers through education, through dialogue, getting people to embrace the idea that love wins. I’m just a little cog in that global effort.
Q: Your granny could have written one heck of a self-help bestseller. Among other things, she taught you the importance of loving oneself and she said, “truth, love, respect, humility — those are values that apply to any time, any culture.” How important is that ideal to your work?
A: What I learned from my granny are things that all humanity should be embracing. My granny was the most humble person I’ve ever known, and when I look back and I think of her, she did absolutely everything or almost everything for others rather than for herself. Whereas most people go to the world to stand on a mountaintop to try to become famous, Granny’s purpose in her life was her family, to make sure that we were peaceful and serene, that we knew who they were, and that we acknowledged our own value. I think we all should be asking that question: Why are we here? What is our true purpose in being?
Q: What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
A: My mentor Chief Tom Dawson taught me to be a good person, but most of all to work hard, and to work ethically. He encouraged me. He showed me through his words and his actions that he really cared about others and cared about me. He taught me that we had a responsibility to truly become ourselves, and to carry that responsibility forward to our community.
Q: Now almost 10 years after the 2013 70,000-person strong Walk for Reconciliation that you write about at the beginning of your book, how are you feeling today about the path to reconciliation?
A: Reconciliation is underway in this country from coast-to-coast, and even if we think we have challenges with government thinking, you’d be amazed at the volume of response that has taken place in civil society. I’m seeing people everywhere: trying to determine what reconciliation means, asking how do I begin? What do I do? It’s been seven years since the TRC, and I never expected that we would all suddenly become enlightened and be reconciled. But reconciliation happens through the course of our lifetimes. When our great-great-great-grandkids are leading the way, the work will still continue because we’re imperfect. But it’s time to shift human consciousness just a little bit and recognize that reconciliation will be a touchstone for future generations to understand equality and justice. It’s the work of generations, not hours.
Q: What is your vision for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?
A: My vision has never faltered. I think reconciliation is about all people in this land coming together no matter what their cultural world view, learning to live together side-by-side, respecting each other. How can we not celebrate diversity? When we truly believe in each other, we will know that we don’t need to assimilate or homogenize every idea. Our strength, our beauty will be in difference and diversity.
Q: You write that you were never afraid to take on jobs you were not qualified for. One of those such jobs was reporter (early 1960s) for The Vancouver Sun. What first comes to mind when you think about that gig?
A: Oh, my goodness, it was so exciting. I was young. When Bill Galt rolled the dice and took a chance on me, I felt that I could do anything. I minimized my fear, and it was a personal moment of triumph. To me, it was a demonstration of humanity on his part, that feeling of connection and hope. I think that we all have to take some chances on each other.