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Two truths and a lie

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Kokum Scarf, photo credit: @aahasuwimiikwan, Twitter

Here at ReconciliACTION, we strive to provide content and commentary that responds to current events as well as our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ You may have noticed that we have yet to address the war in Ukraine. Not addressing the war hasn’t been something we were trying to neglect - it is a pivotal moment in history and deserves proper attention. Rather, we had hoped that perhaps it was just a bunch of puffery, or that the active conflict would’ve been over by now. Sadly, neither are true.

Today marks the 30th day of the Russian invasion into the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Nearly 1000 civilian casualties have been reported. [1] The city of Mariupol has been ravaged; Kyiv is under active attack and more than 10 million people, including 1.5 million children, have already fled Ukraine. [2]

Since the beginning of the pandemic, folks have been longing to return to ‘normalcy.’ Just as our pandemic response started to shift, the war in Ukraine broke out, and now more than ever, we ache for an end to these ‘unprecedented times.’

But are these times truly unprecedented?

Indigenous peoples know all too well what it is to have one's land and home overrun by outsiders. It is with this mindset that many Indigenous peoples, communities and leaders reacted to the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with solidarity for the Ukrainian peoples.

Early on in the conflict, many Indigenous women showed their solidarity with Ukraine by wearing or displaying kokum scarves - colourful floral scarves that originated as gifts from Ukrainian settlers to Indigenous peoples. [3] Since receiving these gifts, they have long been used in ceremony and regalia and mark, for some, a special solidarity between Indigenous and Ukrainian communities.[4]

This sense of solidarity stems from experiences like those shared by Elder Francis Whiskeyjack, who grew up alongside Ukrainian farmers who did not treat him with the same racism as the English and French. After all, the Ukrainians were also looked down upon as ‘second class’ by the English and French.[5]

It is significant to note however, that the sharing of kokum scarves and the supportive relationship between Indigenous and Ukrainian communities were only possible because of colonization. [6] Ukrainian settlers came later, but they were and are part of the colonial project that disenfranchised Indigenous peoples from their lands.

And so, the shows of solidarity were met with push back from decolonialist corners where concerns were raised about painting all people of Ukrainian decent as oppressed, and ignoring that they were part of the oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Patty Krawec describes this as “glorify[ing] Ukrainian settlers and eras[ing] the violence of colonization.”[7] These concerns take on another dimension as we plans to welcome a new generation of Ukrainian refugees. They will be welcomed to safety in Canada, but they will also take the place of settlers on stolen land. [8]

"A challenge to be in better relations"

Both of these things are true at the same time, and ignoring one truth because the other is more palatable serves no one. However, this may be an opportunity for not only personal growth, but national growth. Indigenous researchers and authors, like Chelsea Vowel, encourage us to see this moment as “a challenge to be in better relations.”[9]

Stories of good, supportive, reciprocal relationships between Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous people, the relationships that led to the sharing of the kokum scarves, are a testament to the possibility of a treaty relationship as it was always supposed to be. Of course there were ‘good settlers’ then, just as there are now, but that doesn’t erase the fact of the settlement. Colonialism is the problem, and we can’t lose sight of that in our empathy over the unbearable injustice being inflicted upon Ukrainians and our desire to help.

Our challenge today is the same as it’s always been – to acknowledge the whole truth and then work towards reconciliation. It is possible – we know it is – we have the histories to prove it. Let’s commit to continue this work, as we welcome new neighbours and stand with people the world over defending themselves against oppressors.

In the hope of peace and reconciliation, until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION YEG


[1] Joe Hernandez, “More than 900 civilians have died in Ukraine. The true number is likely much higher”, NPR (20 March 2022), online: <>.

[2] “Ukraine holds on to Mariupol as civilians escaping the port city describe devastation”, Associated Press (22 March 2022), online: <> ; Ellen Francis and Harry Stevens, “Nearly 1 in 4 people in Ukraine forced out of their homes since Russia’s invasion”, The Washington Post (21 March 2022), online: <>.

[3] Brandi Morin, “Remembering Good Relations: First Nations in Canada Show their Solidarity with Ukrainians”, Cultural Survival (7 March 2022), online: <>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dawn Marie Paley and Justin Brake, “As solidarity with Ukrainians flourishes, cherished colonial narratives are being challenged”, Breach Media (9 March 2022), online: <>.

[7]Patty Krawec, “Solidarity with Ukraine: An Indigenous View”, Rampant Magazine (14 March 2022), online: <>.

[8] Paley and Brake, supra note 6

[9] Ibid.

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