Getting on the right side of history

By Katherine Gordon Palmer

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report calls for a massive shift in how Canada conducts itself in relation to Aboriginal people.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report summary, released on May 31, pulls no punches over the impact of Canada’s residential schools. 

“For over a century,” it begins, “[a] central goal of Canada’s Aboriginal policy [was] to…cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy…[This] can best be described as cultural genocide.” 

These scathing words set the tone for a document that is uncompromising in every respect. The wrongs perpetrated in residential schools are set out in excoriating detail. The tearing apart of relationships, beatings, deliberate starvation, rampant sexual abuse and frequent deaths of the children are all described in excerpts from thousands of stories collected over the course of the Commission’s six-year mandate. 

The report demands action to repair the multi-generational damage caused by these shameful events. A fundamental shift in Canadian attitudes is also called for: “Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. We are not there yet,” states the report bluntly. 

The report also says: “We believe we can get there.” Asked how, Commissioner Marie Wilson responds: “If we are to reach the state of reconciliation we seek, then everything needs to change.”

Wilson and her fellow commissioners, Justice Murray Sinclair and Chief Wilton Littlechild, have set out a comprehensive list of everything they believe needs to be done in the name of meaningful reconciliation: 94 wide-ranging calls to action that include everything from adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by governments, institutions and the business sector, to detailed recommendations for specific changes to the education, health, custodial and child welfare systems. 

Some recommendations could be implemented with relative ease. Some already have been, at least by the provinces. Manitoba adopted Jordan’s Principle for the coordinated federal/provincial care of on-reserve Aboriginal children (Recommendation #3) back in 2007. The Northwest Territories has developed a comprehensive teaching resource on the residential schools and made it mandatory for all high school students (#62 and #63). 

Wilson applauds the NWT’s initiative, emphasizing the need to inform and educate Canadians about the residential school legacy. This is reflected in several of the recommendations: “We put a great deal of focus on this in our report. Huge educational gaps still exist. Generation after generation of Canadians are growing up knowing absolutely nothing about this issue. This undefeated ignorance continues to be a massive barrier to reconciliation.”

Other no-brainers for immediate implementation include requiring all child-welfare decision-makers to consider the impact of the residential school experience on children and their caregivers (#1.v.) and the simple but meaningful step of enabling residential school survivors to reclaim, at no cost, names changed by the school system (#17). 

A training program for all government employees on the residential schools, treaties and Aboriginal rights (#57) is hard to argue with. So is requiring chief coroners and provincial vital statistics agencies to disclose their records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in residential schools (#71). It’s important information for Canadians to know and understand. 

Other recommendations may be more challenging, however, especially those calling for significant new funding resources or which test entrenched attitudes, like the federal government’s firm opposition to adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Changing the oath of citizenship to require recognition of treaties may be appropriate, but is also controversial. Extracting an apology from the Catholic Church won’t necessarily be straightforward either. 

At a federal government level, in this election year, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has praised the report, as has Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remained close-lipped. At the Commission’s closing ceremonies held in Ottawa, federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt remained seated while everyone else in the room stood to applaud the Commissioners’ work. 

This is a discouraging reflection of the Harper government’s lack of commitment to the reconciliation process. It’s an unsurprising response, however, from a government that has done much over the last decade to alienate Aboriginal people, including inexcusable heel-dragging in treaty negotiations, zealous promotion of oil and gas expansion, its continuing refusal to acknowledge existing Aboriginal rights and title, and its failure to address poor living conditions in remote communities or provide robust educational and health support to First Nations. 

Matt James, a member of the University of Victoria’s political science faculty, suggests there is little hope the Harper government will respond meaningfully to the Commission’s calls to action: “My bet would be that they will probably find one or two recommendations that they like, and then will be very conspicuous and energetic in implementing them while ignoring the broader transformational relationship needs.”

The federal government did apologize for the residential schools in 2008. But Marie Wilson says there is a strong perception that nothing has changed since. In many respects they have got worse: “There are the missing and murdered women, for example, increasing numbers of Aboriginal children in care, and extensive funding cuts to Aboriginal healing programs, despite the fact they have done such good work to help survivors and their families.” 

Wilson says a strong sense of injustice on the part of the Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada, as well as day students at the residential schools, also stands in the way of true reconciliation with all of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. All of them were excluded from the Commission’s mandate by the federal government on a legal technicality, despite having suffered in a similar way to First Nations children. 

In British Columbia, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation John Rustad has responded positively to the report, stating: “All levels of government must work in partnership with First Nations and Aboriginal people to address the challenges faced by communities, including socio-economic gaps and healing.” In a June 16 press release a long list of reconciliatory initiatives undertaken by the government in many of the areas identified in the report was enumerated. To its credit, those include important matters like transparency on the deaths of children in the residential school era and endorsement of Jordan’s Principle. Rustad stopped short, however, of stating how his government will specifically respond to the Commission’s detailed recommendations.

In the meantime, his government continues to ride its LNG dreams rough-shod over the objections of many First Nations. And Premier Christy Clark has not responded to child advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s call for a cross-government Aboriginal children’s plan. Last March Clark pulled Chief Treaty Commissioner-in-waiting George Abbott’s appointment at the last minute, throwing the treaty process into turmoil. 

Although an expanded provincial curriculum incorporating more course content on the residential schools is about to be introduced, the Greater Victoria School Board has been unsuccessful in garnering provincial support for Grade 12 graduates to take a standalone course on residential schools, something it believes is vital. Such actions of governments, observes Wilson, “are huge obstacles to reconciliation.”

Val Napoleon, a member of Saulteau First Nation, is the Law Foundation Professor of Aboriginal Justice and Governance at UVic. Napoleon believes that despite the intransigence of senior governments, many of the Commission’s recommendations can be acted on immediately at a local level. “I wouldn’t like to see the momentum created by this process to be stalled now by waiting for the federal or provincial governments to take the lead. There are many things those governments won’t do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.”

For example, she points out that UVic’s law faculty is already considering how it can adjust its curriculum to include better awareness of the residential schools and issues related to Aboriginal justice. At an individual level, a friend of hers in Alberta is organizing discussion groups at her local library to talk about what reconciliation means, something anyone can do.

For Shelagh Rogers, recently installed as Chancellor of UVic and an honorary witness to the Commission proceedings, it goes beyond what we can do to what we should do. Rogers believes individual Canadians must take a high level of responsibility to embrace the spirit of the report. She points out: “Not all of the recommendations fall to government. Civil society must be involved.” 

“Canadians from all walks of life are responsible for taking action on reconciliation in concrete ways,” agrees the report. “Reconciliation begins with each and every one of us.” Canadians must do their part to keep this story alive: “One hundred years from now, our children’s children and their children must know and still remember this history, because they will inherit from us the responsibility of ensuring that it never happens again.”

“We mustn’t ever forget that history,” concurs Val Napoleon. “But now we also have all of the tremendous work that the Commission has undertaken, and their recommendations. Taken together, they form a tremendous foundation for the change that needs to happen in Canada. We can look at them and imagine a new reality that enriches us all.”

Katherine Palmer Gordon worked for more than 15 years as a contracts lawyer and First Peoples’ land claims negotiator and facilitator, both in New Zealand and BC. She is the author of six books.