Reconciliation Awards: Tokenism or Real Reconciliation?

Image Taken By Judy Jaunzems-Fernuk (Wanuskewin by Moonlight)

An Open Letter to The YWCA

Calls to Action as Non-Indigenous Canadians Regarding Awards Ceremonies and Categories

I am writing to express my deep concern for the recent decision to award two non-Indigenous women a reconciliation award instead of recognizing the significant contributions of Indigenous nominees who should be centred as leaders advancing reconciliation in our community. In the category of Reconciliation, at the Women of Distinction Awards Night in Saskatoon on May 25th, 2023, two Indigenous women leaders were nominated; however, they were not recognized as recipients of the award. This letter and call to action outline why this was a mistake in our Reconciliation efforts in Canada and in our community, and it comes with the hope of opening space for conversation and change. As an ally, I am sending this letter responding to a call into the conversation by Indigenous colleagues and friends.

As white Canadian leaders, it is our responsibility to respond to the Calls to Action by actively supporting and uplifting Indigenous voices, perspectives, and leadership. The YWCA Women of Distinction Awards have an important role in shaping public perception and recognizing individuals who embody the principles of reconciliation. By awarding non-Indigenous women the reconciliation award, it inadvertently perpetuates the marginalization and, further, erasure of Indigenous women leaders who have been at the forefront of this work for decades.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) defines reconciliation as an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships. The TRC specifically “provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences”[1] – and be heard – as an important step in rebuilding (aka reconciling) the past. Canadian institutions, including the government, have committed to listening to Indigenous peoples and re-centring their voices in acts of healing. I personally feel that centring two non-Indigenous women leaders in this category does not respect or uphold the intent of this work of the TRC or its intended legacy, which attempts to heal through relationship, continued learning, and the celebration of Indigenous leaders, with an understanding of past wrong-doings. This mistake disrespects all Canadians (and perhaps most importantly, young Indigenous women leaders) and the process of Reconciliation – a process for which the award was named.

In response to this award to non-Indigenous women leaders, I urge conversation and action around this topic. Mistakes can be made in attempts at Truth and Reconciliation. Still, there should be action toward healing through reconsidering this award category and, by definition, reframing it and publicly explaining the potential for changes – demonstrating accountability.

When engaging with decolonization, recognizing our white identities as privileged and powerful and expanding our active, genuine role in engagement with Indigenous communities is essential.  As an ally to the Indigenous women leaders in our community, I am writing to ask for a public review and report of this awards category and the mistakes made this month in our community.  To recognize reconciliation as a category, where the goal was not to center Indigenous women leaders but instead put their work up against that in competition with non-Indigenous women leaders, was disingenuous, and it was a mistake reflecting a common settler discourse of innocence and ‘good intent’[2].

Tuck and Yang (2012), in an article I suggest starting with, help us to understand the power dynamic behind this work – especially when we get it wrong. They remind us that these attempts all too often “relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility” without actually giving power or privilege where it is due, and in actuality, people ‘act’ “without having to change much at all” p.10)[3].

Further, as an inherent aspect of identity, Indigenous peoples bear much of the weight of teaching non-Indigenous leaders and those willing to learn (and more so) unlearn/re-learn Canada’s history of colonization against Indigenous peoples. This burden is emotional labour and is disproportionate and, all too often, as displayed in your awards category (and subsequent calls to action), not honoured.

Mistakes that center non-Indigenous women in a category that exists because of the immense harm caused (cultural genocide) guarantee continued misuse of power, privilege, settler supremacy, and sovereignty in a time when reconciliation means specifically – that non-Indigenous Canadians must be held accountable, act, and listen.  The way to reconcile this mistake is by addressing it and the ongoing colonialist roots of dominance and oppression through well-intended but misguided work – and this is my call to act – for an organization claiming support of this work in Saskatoon. As a supporter of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, I find it imperative to address this matter immediately as it directly affects the progress we strive for in our community.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action were developed to guide Canada toward healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. These Calls to Action acknowledge historical injustices committed against Indigenous communities and provide a roadmap for achieving a more equitable and just society. Of relevance to this issue is Call to Action number 92, which calls upon the corporate sector and non-Indigenous leaders to commit to the principles of reconciliation and, in essence, to support Indigenous voices where in the past, this has not been acknowledged.

Indigenous women leaders are essential to the reconciliation process, as they bring unique knowledge, experience, and wisdom rooted in cultural heritage and deep connection to the people at the heart of this process. Recognizing and honouring their contributions not only acknowledges their resilience and leadership but also amplifies their voices and paves the way for a more inclusive and equitable society – one for which I am sure (at least I hope) we all want to strive towards.

I respectfully ask the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards Committee to answer publicly a fundamental question in this work: What does reconciliation mean to you? If the response is thoughtful and beyond a token gesture, we will see a genuine commitment to healing, justice, and building meaningful relationships with Indigenous people and communities.

To ensure that the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action are honoured, I propose the following steps for the YWCA to consider:

  1. Reviewing and Revising: Conduct a thorough review of the selection process and criteria for the reconciliation award, ensuring that it is aligned with the principles of reconciliation and recognizes the contributions of Indigenous women leaders.
  2. Engaging Indigenous People and Communities: Actively engage wholeheartedly with Indigenous communities and organizations to seek their input and guidance in the selection process, ensuring the representation and recognition of Indigenous women leaders – hearing many sides and perspectives before acting. I understand, through a publicly posted response, that Indigenous women were on the selection committee; however, in a society with unbalanced power and systemic racism guiding many of our policies and procedures, should a reconciliation committee not be enacted and wholly made up of Indigenous women? Or should awards that are based on criteria designed by non-Indigenous peoples be re-considered? Further is the process of ranking people outdated and colonial? These are all questions I ponder in our Colonial systems.
  3. Begin Cultural and Sensitivity and Humility Training and provide cultural sensitivity training to the Awards Committee members, staff, and volunteers to enhance their understanding of the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous communities to foster a more inclusive and equitable decision-making process. From the response letter posted on social media to one of the nominees, specifically – sensitivity, responsibility, and affirmative action were not respected.
  4. Model Transparent Communication: Clearly communicate the revised selection process and criteria to the public, highlighting the importance of recognizing and uplifting Indigenous women leaders in the reconciliation journey moving forward.

It is essential that we recognize that harm can be perpetuated when reconciliation efforts are misdirected and misguided. As noted, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and for that to happen, “there must be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of harm, and action to change behaviour.”[4]

Failing to honour Indigenous women leaders through these awards not only undermines the principles of reconciliation but also perpetuates systemic inequalities and diminishes the contributions of those who have worked tirelessly for justice and healing. I urge the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards Committee and their sponsors and supporters to consider rectifying this mistake by hosting open conversations and demonstrating a genuine commitment to engagement with Indigenous peoples, leaders, and communities.

Thank you,


I live and work on the traditional territories of the Neyinowak Inniwak (Cree) and Metis peoples. cc: YWCA Saskatoon Women of Distinction Event Sponsors, Supports, and Affiliate Members

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Government of Canada

[2] Osmond-Johnson, P., & Turner, P. (2020). Navigating the “ethical space” of truth and reconciliation: Non-Indigenous school principals in Saskatchewan. Curriculum Inquiry50(1), 54-77.

[3] Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2021). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Tabula Rasa, (38), 61-111.

[4] From “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future”: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015), at 6-7.

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