Lawyers have played leading roles in every chapter of social progress – as advocates and as agents of justice – but, when it comes to meaningful reconciliation, the courts, while central, can only take us so far. For lawyer-authors Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson, it is clear that change is needed at a policy level – change that cannot come without improved understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples on this land.
Sharing the truth with a broad audience – in a factual, personal and compelling way – is what they set out to do with Valley of the Birdtail, a true story of racism and reconciliation centred around two families, one white and one Indigenous, and two communities, the town of Rossburn and the Waywayseecappo Indian reserve. At an intimate OBA Community Book Club event, the authors talked to members about the power of narrative history to change hearts and minds and political choices, the real sacrifice that reconciliation and a better future requires, and the action they hope to inspire with their work. Below are some captivating quotes from that critical conversation.
Reaching out beyond the courts to push social change
“I think that there’s this view that lawyers have that a lot of social progress can come through the courts. And I think it’s often, or at least sometimes true, and maybe in recent history at least on Indigenous issues that a lot of good stuff has been happening at the Supreme Court, you know, with the tort litigation that led to the Indian residential school settlement and the TRC and a lot of the Aboriginal title stuff … but I think the courts aren’t going to save us. As part of the decision to write a narrative history that is reaching a broad audience, we want to reach beyond in a really intimate, personal way to reach out beyond the courts to try to push some social change that way.” – Andrew Stobo Sniderman
It’s hard to generate the momentum around big ideas when nobody knows the history
“The text is a culmination of a dawning, slow realization that the problems are not really legal. Look, we can try and, you know, jam the problems into various causes of action, and then, you know, we can litigate for decades, but it’s a really forced and strained kind of project because the issues really are about political equality, about how it is we’re going to live side by side. And those are essentially political choices. And so, Valley of the Birdtail allows us then to get a historical narrative out there that we think can ground new policy choices. It’s really hard to generate the momentum around big ideas when nobody knows the history.” – Douglas Sanderson
A background against which people can judge normative policy options in the present-day
“We’re trying to create a level historical, factual playing field so that contemporary Indigenous claims to justice are set against an appropriate background. And that’s the piece that’s really missing for most people. So that the claims of justice in the present-day sort of smack them out of nowhere. And we want to be able to show that not only is there a long history of these oppressive policies, but in fact the policies are designed to work hand in glove, one with the other. And so that it’s not just that residential schools were appalling, but they were appalling and designed to work in conjunction with the pass system so parents couldn’t visit their children. So it’s seeing all the pieces woven together that I think sets a potential background against which people could judge normative policy options in the present day.” – Douglas Sanderson
The idea that we’re just going to stumble into a brighter future is a magic thinking
“I think what I want people to do is once they have all of the facts, the reconciliation that I’m hoping for isn’t between Indigenous and settler peoples; at first instance I want settler readers to reconcile themselves to the fact that things have to change, and that it’s not going to be cost free. That the idea that we’re just going to, you know, stumble into a brighter future is magic thinking. That people need to reconcile themselves to the idea that they’re going to have to do stuff, that things are going to cost money, that these costs will be imposed over generations, that equality may require giving up some stuff. And I think that’s the sort of reconciliation that I need to see start happening amongst my settler colleagues and allies. Up until now, reconciliation has just sort of been this idea that some set of things will happen and then everyone will be happy. But the fact is that between here and there, there’s a lot of hard work and there’s sacrifice and that’s something people need to reconcile themselves to.” – Douglas Sanderson
Sharing our best take at what going forward looks like
“We have a big chapter at the end filled with our policy prescriptions, and that is a deliberate narrative choice to kind of load up the back of the text with okay, here’s what we think. We may not be right about it, but we want to share our best take and what going forward looks like. And it involves, you know, rethinking, how equalization works and how to empower Indigenous governments in a meaningful way, which still isn’t really true across most of the country. So I’m glad we took a swing at it at the end and, for anyone who has read it, I’m happy to talk about it any time.” – Andrew Stobo Sniderman
About the authors
ANDREW STOBO SNIDERMAN is a writer, lawyer, and Rhodes Scholar from Montreal. He has written for the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and Maclean’s. He has also argued before the Supreme Court of Canada, served as the human rights policy advisor to the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, and worked for a judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
DOUGLAS SANDERSON (AMO BINASHII) is the Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and has served as a senior policy advisor to Ontario’s attorney general and minister of Indigenous affairs. He is Swampy Cree, Beaver clan, of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
Members can find a recording of this event – along with previous OBA Community Book Club discussions – here.