2016 Civil Courage Award Recipient:
Chief Dr. Robert Joseph
Chief Robert Joseph, a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, was born in 1939 and grew up in the area around Alert Bay, BC. Just short of his seventh birthday he was sent to St Michael’s, an Indian Residential School where he spent 11 years enduring physical, sexual and emotional abuse and isolation. He later stated: “I stumbled out of that school broken, addicted to alcohol. All of the things I learned in that school I transferred to how I treated my wife and my children and it cycled.” Chief Joseph believes that the residential school system broke the aboriginal family cultural reality.
Through great courage and perseverance Robert Joseph was able to overcome his demons of addiction and has dedicated his life to helping other Residential School survivors break the cycle of residual anger, dysfunction, addiction and violence. In the face of criticism from all sides, including those who did not believe that the government would be interested in reconciling with the First Nations, he courageously spoke out publicly about the deleterious effects of the residential school system on the Aboriginal members of Canadian society.
As Chairman of the Native American Leadership Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation and in his work with the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace (IFWP), Robert Joseph has met with leaders of South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and the United States to learn from and to share his understanding of faith, hope, healing and reconciliation. He served as Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council, and was Executive Director of the Residential Schools Survivors Society. While in this historic role, his efforts to bring about understanding between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples have increased our appreciation for the suffering of Residential School victims and the tragic impact of the abuse on generations of his people.
Chief Joseph showed great leadership in encouraging people to speak out publicly, insisting that it is the responsibility of those who have endured hardships to share their history and move from healing to reconciliation. In telling his own story, he risked re-awakening and re-living disturbing memories and childhood trauma but his example encouraged and inspired other Residential School survivors to speak about the hardships they endured in childhood.
Chief Joseph has taken his understanding of the effects suffered by his people to a broader, international community. He has been instrumental in engaging Canadians in nation-wide dialogue and has reached out to the Muslim, Palestinian and Jewish communities, including many Holocaust survivors. He inspired the Walk for Reconciliation which brought together 70,000 Canadians in Vancouver on Sep 23, 2013.
As the June 15, 2015, News Release announcing Chief Joseph’s appointment to the Order of British Columbia stated: “He models an inclusive approach to peaceful dialogue that embraces all cultures and faiths to create unity of purpose to reach reconciliation.” The news release concluded with the following acknowledgment of the significant role Chief Robert Joseph has and continues to play: “One of the last fluent speakers of the Kwakwaka’wakw language, he is an eloquent and inspiring speaker who initiated the reconciliation dialogue process and ignited a fire under it.”
Robert Joseph has used the suffering he experienced for positive change. He brought the truth about Residential Schools to the Canadian public’s attention and raised awareness about the effect the trauma has had on successive generations. His efforts at reconciliation have built meaningful relationships and a greater appreciation among all Canadians of the pluralistic society and the freedoms we enjoy.
Professional life and recognition
Chief Robert Joseph has worked as a Kwakwaka’wakw language instructor at the University of British Columbia. He is co-author of “Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast”. In 2003 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree from UBC for his distinguished achievements in serving BC and Canada. In 2012, he was presented with The Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. He received the Jack P Blaney Award for Dialogue from Simon Fraser University on January 15, 2014, an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity on May 5, 2014 from the Vancouver School of Theology and the City of Vancouver Award of Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion.
Information sources about Chief Robert Joseph
SFU Centre for Dialogue – Chief Robert Joseph –Tribute Video (and others)
SFU Centre for Dialogue – Chief Robert Joseph – Part 3: Reconciliation Video