Reflecting on reconciliation with Marie-Josée Parent
Reflecting on reconciliation with Marie-Josée Parent
by Teagan Chapman
In 2008, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to address the legacy of the Canadian residential school system. For five years, the committee spoke with thousands of survivors and in 2015 it announced 94 Calls to Action to further the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. While Canada still has a long way to go, with only 10 having been implemented, local communities also have an important role to play in recognizing and supporting Indigenous nations. On Feb. 12, McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal (CIRM) welcomed Verdun city councillor Marie-Josée Parent to discuss how she is challenging the status quo through her work on Montreal’s Reconciliation with First Nations portfolio.
Parent, who is of both Mi’kmaq and Acadian heritage, became the first Indigenous councillor in Montreal in 2017. While this part of her identity is important, she stresses that her role as a civil servant is equally as important.
“I try to see myself as an elected official of Montreal, the same way that my colleagues that are Italian or Irish or Romanian see themselves in the day-to-day, otherwise the pressure is too big,” Parent said.
But she doesn’t deny that her background has informed her work. After studying philosophy and art history in university, Parent began her career in the art world, where she viewed the concept of culture differently than those around her. Through her Mi’kmaq identity, she had been raised to understand culture as “something that would facilitate social change and social engagement, […] something that could bring us together,” and she wanted to focus on the way that individuals are “practitioners of culture” in their everyday lives; the way the people cook, dress, and raise their children, rather than solely focusing on visual arts such as painting and video. When it became evident that her colleagues did not share this view of culture and were not ready to transform these cultural differences into art, she turned to politics instead.
Today, as a member of the executive committee for Montreal’s Reconciliation with First Nations portfolio, Parent’s role is to make sure that the vision for reconciliation which was agreed upon by the government and the community is respected. With her Indigenous background, she brings to the table an understanding of what reconciliation really means.
“I’m not afraid of talking about cultural genocide, genocide, colonisation, decolonisation [...] because all my life I’ve been a part of that conversation, and it had an impact on my family directly,” Parent said. “Not only am I not afraid, but I’m also very much ready to bring those conversations forward.”
For Parent, better serving the community is only 50 per cent of reconciliation.
“There’s another 50 per cent which is, how do we question our own institutions?” Parent said. “How do we question our role to the external world? It’s not just about serving the community, which is really important, but if it’s just about serving the community, it’s not reconciliation.”
She stressed that through her role on the executive committee, she is a bridge between the community, the government, and services. Parent explained that she is “still pushing to [...] challenge our decision-making processes and [...] include Indigenous nations in at least some of the decision-making of the city.”
Going forward, Parent has clear goals for Montreal’s relations with Indigenous nations. First, she hopes to see an Indigenous Cultural Embassy project come to fruition in the near future, as a way to share different identities and unite people of different backgrounds. She noted that members of the community have been asking for such a project for nearly 20 years, therefore as part of her elected mandate, she has a responsibility to work towards it.
Second, Parent hopes to push for a study of co-governance models across the world. One aspect of her position is to help develop a healthy nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous peoples and the government, but she noted that there aren’t enough examples of co-governance practices in Canada to inform Montreal of the most effective structures. For this reason, she believes that it is imperative to study working models from other areas of the world to gain insight into how Montreal could begin to include Indigenous peoples in the city’s decision-making processes.
Parent recognizes the challenges inherent in her work. Even after a year in office, she still questions the full scope of her elected mandate and walks a fine line between what does and does not respect it. In addition, she admits that “reconciliation [is] really difficult because it means letting go of power” and in questioning our current institutions and systems, we must be ready to be uncomfortable. However, she noted the willingness of Montrealers, and especially of a younger generation, to be open to new ideas and to acknowledge not only the cultural genocide in Canada’s past, but also the hard work that lies ahead.
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