Are We Serious About Truth and Reconciliation?

Coming Together

By Chelsea Vowel

For well over a decade I’ve talked to Canadians about the issues Indigenous peoples face. I’ve challenged stereotypes and tried to build relationships that will get us beyond stubborn misconceptions. It’s been a draining slog, and at times I’ve felt like giving up completely. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released last December, has given me a renewed sense of purpose and energy—not because of what was written but because Canadians are engaging with the material.

I feel more supported in my work because the TRC report exists, and because ordinary people are asking questions and listening to the answers. But I also find myself bracing for backlash. When I question why, I realize it has a lot to do with the Oka crisis.

When Oka happened, in the summer of 1990, I was in junior high. It was a strange time. From almost never seeing Indigenous people on TV or hearing about them on the radio, suddenly there were months of coverage. Every time I saw a picture of a Mohawk warrior in camouflage, face covered and raising a fist, I felt both thrilled and terrified.

Anti-Indigenous racism is a constant on the Prairies, but during the Oka crisis, things heated up quickly. Visibly Aboriginal people were blamed for what was happening, even if the people hurling insults (and often blows) weren’t sure themselves what Oka was all about. Tensions around the country ratcheted up; this wasn’t just a local disturbance in far-off Quebec. This was the potential of Indigenous presence and resistance touching every corner of Canada.

It was also a profound moment of political awakening for many Indigenous youth. Elders, women and children were at Oka too. Kids like us, kids like our younger siblings, one of whom got stabbed in the chest with a bayonet! Waneek Horn-Miller was 14 years old at the time, and she went on to become an Olympic athlete, but seeing someone not much older than yourself experience that kind of violence was frightening. It wasn’t difficult to imagine our own extended families facing the guns and tear gas of police and later the Canadian army. This naked use of force against the Mohawk was a sobering lesson in what Indigenous people still face in the 20th (and now 21st) century.

The Oka crisis brought a lot of feelings and prejudices about Indigenous peoples bubbling to the surface of Canadian society. That wave of interest and disquiet launched the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) to look into “restructuring the relationship” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. The RCAP released a final report in 1996 with 444 recommendations and a clear 20-year roadmap for fundamental change.

Ten years after the RCAP report, the Assembly of First Nations released a report card assessing how many of its recommendations had been implemented. With the naming of June 21 as National Aboriginal Day, Canada had managed to fully implement only one. Today, exactly 20 years later, not much more progress has been made. We’re still talking about the need for fundamental change.

The RCAP report continues to be an invaluable resource for teachers, researchers and legal experts. Its five volumes contain solid research, history and information for anyone wishing to learn about the issues facing Indigenous peoples in Canada and potential improvements. In terms of being a transformational document, however, public interest simply waned and its political influence was never realized. Will its successor, the TRC report, suffer a similar fate?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report avoided the word “recommendation,” instead issuing 94 “calls to action.”

The Truth and Reconciliation commission wasn’t formed until 2008, 12 years after the RCAP report had called for a public inquiry into residential schools, and two years after the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement had been announced.

But the TRC might never have happened if it hadn’t been for the largest class action lawsuit in Canada’s history. That lawsuit was settled through negotiation with former students (called survivors) of residential schools, and included compensation for abuses they experienced as children in the system. A condition of the settlement was the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, paid for with survivors’ settlement monies. The TRC was not funded by taxpayers. As commissioner Marie Wilson says, “We can’t forget that, and we can’t allow governments to take credit for the very thing that survivors fought so hard to have.”

The TRC got off to a rocky start, as the first three commissioners resigned due to interpersonal issues. In June 2009, Wilson, Murray Sinclair and Wilton Littlechild took the reins. The TRC wasn’t set up merely to investigate the past; it was to provide concrete ways to address the legacy of residential schools and to advance reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The TRC released its final report in mid-December of 2015. The commission deliberately avoided the word “recommendation,” with its advisory connotations, instead issuing 94 “calls to action” aimed once again at restructuring the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Various sectors of society, not merely provincial and federal governments, are exhorted to take clear and specific action.

As stated in Volume 5 of the final report: “Reconciliation will require more than pious words about the shortcomings of those who preceded us. It obliges us to both recognize the ways in which the legacy of residential schools continues to disfigure Canadian life and to abandon policies and approaches that currently serve to extend that hurtful legacy.”

The calls to action are divided into two sections: legacy and reconciliation.

“Legacy” addresses the intergenerational impacts of residential schools, “reflected in the significant educational, income, health and social disparities between Aboriginal people and other Canadians… in the intense racism some people harbour against Aboriginal people and in the systemic and other forms of discrimination Aboriginal people regularly experience in this country.” The calls to action here address child welfare, education, language, culture, health and justice.

“Reconciliation” goes further than trying to close gaps and right past wrongs. It reads: “The ultimate objective must be to transform our country and restore mutual respect between peoples and nations.” This is the truly transformative (and much longer) section, mapping out ways in which various sectors of society can live and breathe reconciliation.

Upon the release of the TRC’s final report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to fully implementing all 94 calls to action—despite the fact that not all are within the scope of the federal government. For example, it is certainly not within the federal government’s power to compel an apology from the Pope, which is call to action 58. Nonetheless, Trudeau’s was a powerful public statement.

Then again, the Minister of Indian Affairs in 1998 delivered a Statement of Reconciliation and the Chrétien government put $350-million into Native healing programs. That seemed like a big deal then too.

Media coverage of the TRC has been decidely more widespread than that of 1996’s Royal Commission—and so too is public awareness.

So how do we evaluate what’s happened since the TRC final report was released? How should we feel about many of the TRC’s calls to action simply repeating unrealized RCAP goals? That current discussions about reconciliation sound awfully familiar to those that took place when the RCAP was still fresh and new?

It’s important to understand the different political climate 20 years ago. Oka was a flashpoint for unease, but before the RCAP released its final report we had also experienced the Gustafsen Lake standoff in BC and the Ipperwash crisis in Ontario. All three events involved overwhelming mobilizations of force against First Nations people, with the media (and thus public opinion) heavily favouring state actions. These extended, violent clashes increased tensions, and the RCAP’s long-term goals didn’t deal with immediate concerns. The media gave scant coverage to the RCAP and its final report.

Contrast this with the event leading up to the TRC: no armed standoff but rather a negotiated court settlement. The media coverage of the TRC, however, has been decidedly more widespread, and as a result, so is public awareness. The specific focus on the residential school system has been much less controversial. As survivors shared their stories it was difficult to remain cynical and unmoved by what Aboriginal children endured. While I certainly can’t quantify this, it seems there is a collective sense of responsibility to both understand the legacy of residential schools and make changes. How long this swell of public interest and engagement will last is an open question.

In the first six months after the release of the TRC’s final report, many public commitments to implement specific calls to action were made. Most concrete and immediate was the allocation of $40-million in the federal budget for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

But words and money aren’t necessarily enough to ensure calls to action are fully answered. Some provinces worry the federal inquiry, for example, will dig too deeply into areas of their jurisdiction, such as child welfare. Manitoba initially didn’t sign on to the inquiry. These jurisdictional objections were easy enough to predict; disputes over division of powers predate Confederation. Nonetheless, commissioners have now been chosen to head up this inquiry, and the process will go forward despite its critics.

The first five calls to action address Aboriginal child welfare issues and ask that the federal government ensure adequate resources and implement Jordan’s Principle. Jordan River Anderson was a First Nations child from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba. While the provincial and federal governments argued over who would pay for his care, Jordan spent two years in a hospital away from his community rather than in home care. This financial game of hot potato experienced by too many First Nations children owes to a constitutional division of powers. For most Canadians, healthcare and social services are a provincial responsibility, but the federal government funds and delivers these programs to First Nations people on reserve. The House of Commons unanimously passed Jordan’s Principle in 2007, which obliges the “government or department of first contact” to pay for a service (and resolve the funding question later). It has not been fully implemented.

These calls to action are supported by evidence of racial discrimination against First Nations children on reserve, as was found in a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) decision in January of this year. The CHRT found that children on reserve don’t receive child welfare services equal to those provided off reserve. When March rolled around and the federal budget was released, the funds necessary to close this gap were insufficient. In April the CHRT ordered the federal government to implement Jordan’s Principle, setting a deadline of two weeks. The federal government issued a compliance order, stating it had met the deadline, but Cindy Blackstock, who led the original CHRT case, contends that Canada continues to discriminate against First Nations children. More recently the government announced $382-million to implement Jordan’s Principle (the money will be used “to enhance service coordination and ensure service access resolution”), but without a plan or funding timeline.

Both the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry and Jordan’s Principle highlight the complexities of answering the TRC’s calls to action. The former is a clear, firm intention to fulfill the call to action—but the involvement of multiple stakeholders means implementation won’t be easy or satisfactory to all parties. In the second instance, despite a commitment and despite evidence of discrimination that directly harms children, the federal government drags its feet.

It’s important to keep these examples in mind over the coming months and years as promises are made and committees struck to look into how to answer the calls to action. It’s never going to be as easy as Jean-Luc Picard intoning “make it so” to his crew on the Enterprise.

The calls to action dealing with education have seen the most commitments made. More than a dozen deal with education, both in terms of curriculum as well as educating anyone who works with Indigenous peoples in any capacity. The most sweeping such call to action is 62(i), which expresses the need for mandatory K–12 curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.

As education is a provincial responsibility, changes to curricula must be made province by province and territory by territory. All of Canada’s premiers committed to action in response to the TRC report in July of 2015, but actions so far vary. KAIROS, an ecumenical justice initiative, is keeping tabs on all curricular developments in their “Winds of Change: Read the Report Card.”

Quebec, for example, makes not a single mention of the TRC on its Ministry of Education website. I taught high school in Quebec until moving home to Alberta this summer, and I can attest to the lack of political commitment to integrating Indigenous peoples into the curriculum, as well as the shocking absence of Indigenous peoples from the current program of studies. Despite this I was still stunned when in November of 2015, only months after the release of the TRC summary report, the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers annual conference didn’t include a single workshop on the TRC, or indeed on any Indigenous issues. I personally submitted a workshop proposal on the TRC, and a number of other Indigenous peoples have presented at previous conferences, so this was a deliberate choice.

Contrast this with Alberta Education, which provides dozens of TRC-related resources on its website. The Alberta government issued an expression of reconciliation in March of 2014, and mayors Don Iveson of Edmonton and Naheed Nenshi of Calgary declared a Year of Reconciliation for their cities in that same month, both well ahead of the TRC report.

Alberta has also committed to ensuring K–12 teachers receive training to provide education on the four areas identified in call to action 62(i) over the next two to three years. This promise comes with $5.3-million in funding to various organizations. The province has also announced it will develop new curriculum over six years across six subject areas, and will integrate support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students as well as “Education for Reconciliation,” spending $4-million on consultation with Indigenous partners in addition to the $64-million budgeted for curricular reform.

I don’t mean to point and tsk-tsk at some provinces while applauding others. Educational reform is an inescapably long-term goal, and tangible, society-wide results aren’t seen for years. The provinces that have started on this generational journey should be applauded, but this is a slow-moving train; everyone has time to catch up and jump aboard.

In fact, rushing to implement calls to action won’t always be possible. It’s harder to balance urgency with sufficient capacity to carry out concrete changes than to simply make grand gestures that accomplish nothing.

An example is the post-secondary response to the TRC. Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg now require undergraduate students in all programs to take one Indigenous studies course. These universities already have robust Indigenous studies departments, with about 50 course options across many programs at each institution. However, the rush to mandate Indigenous courses has raised some alarms. Mandee McDonald (maskîkow-iskwiw, Cree) points out that creating mandates without building new institutional capacity may result in environments that are overtly hostile to Indigenous students and staff.

I certainly echo her caution, having experienced hostility in classes where Indigenous content was merely a footnote, both during my bachelor of education and during my law degree. I’m not sure even now that I’d subject myself to the almost inevitably toxic atmosphere of a mandatory course in Indigenous studies when there’s still such deep-seated racism and resentment towards Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Not unless I was certain the program was designed to take all of this into account.

Daniel Heath Justice, a professor and chairman of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at University of British Columbia, agrees. He heads a subcommittee at UBC that works on ways to meaningfully deliver Indigenous content across different disciplines. Although UBC already has significant Indigenous studies content, Justice believes a measured approach is still vital.

“It’s a challenge,” he says. “If we go too quickly, we run the risk of putting in place shallow, underdeveloped initiatives that are ambitious but don’t have the long-term support. If we go too slowly, everyone’s attention will drift elsewhere, and we run the risk of missing the best window we’ve had for meaningful change in more than a generation—if not longer. But steady progress and meaningful and tangible results will keep momentum going, as everyone will see real changes taking place and changes that we can sustain.”

This sentiment can be extended to the implementation of all the calls to action.

“Reconciliation…obliges us to recognize the ways in which the legacy of residential schools continues to disfigure Canadian life.”

The TRC repeatedly refers to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples throughout its calls to action. UNDRIP is not legally binding under international law, and nations would have to pass domestic legislation to implement it. The declaration sets out individual and collective rights in areas such as language, culture, health, education and so on. The TRC report clearly views UNDRIP as the framework for reconciliation in Canada and calls on various sectors of society to learn about and implement its principles.

Although the federal government has endorsed the declaration, it seems to be interpreting the document to fit within Canadian law rather than ensuring Canadian law is consistent with UNDRIP’s principles. The difference is important. For example, the declaration contains a standard of “free, prior and informed consent” when it comes to development in Indigenous territories, including the use of resources. By this standard, Indigenous peoples can only consent as long as they are not coerced (free), are asked to consent before developments occur (prior), and are provided with all information (informed). The standard also includes the right of Indigenous peoples to say no.

Currently Canada is guided by a “duty to consult” that depends on the level of impact on territory or resources and on the strength of Aboriginal rights or claim to title in an area. The duty to consult can be satisfied in some cases by merely informing Indigenous peoples that a development will occur. Even where the adverse impact is extreme, Indigenous peoples haven’t had the right to say no.

In May of 2016 Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told a UN assembly that her government supported UNDRIP “without qualification.” Two months later Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said that implementing the declaration as Canadian law was “unworkable.” Failure to fully implement the declaration into Canadian law will ensure that many calls to action will not be fulfilled. No amount of speeches or promises can change this fact.

Nor did the federal budget offer much in the way of concrete commitment to the TRC calls to action. Touted as including billions of dollars in new funding, the Liberal budget falls short of actual needs. Contrary to much of the public’s understanding, the federal government has constitutional jurisdiction over “Indians and land reserved for Indians.” Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s Daniels decision earlier this year, this now includes all Aboriginal peoples, First Nations, Métis and Inuit alike. Indigenous people on reserve receive little to no funds from provinces for education, healthcare and social services. Non-Indigenous communities can’t compare what they receive to what Indigenous peoples get, as provincial funding far exceeds what’s provided federally for Indigenous services.

Disappointingly, most of the funding in the 2016 budget will come into effect only if the Liberals are re-elected. The funds promised before the next election are insufficient to close the existing gaps in funding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

It’s clear the TRC calls to action have captured the hearts and minds of many people. The “Read the TRC Report” project, begun by Erica Lee (nêhiyaw), Zoe Todd (Métis) and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers (Inuk), crowdsourced volunteers to read sections of the summary report on camera. These online videos make the report more accessible, encouraging Canadians to engage with it.

Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton (RISE) was founded in March 2015 and calls itself “a group of citizens committed to supporting reconciliation in words and actions.” It encourages people to read the TRC report and organizes reconciliation events. People in communities across Canada have taken it upon themselves to form reading circles to get through the TRC report’s most difficult material and to understand how the calls to action are relevant to all Canadians.

These many months after the TRC’s final report was issued, has Canada fundamentally transformed? Certainly not—but seeds have been planted. An engagement is taking place between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples that is unprecedented. Implementing the calls to action will be messy, complicated and frustratingly slow at times, but holding governments and institutions accountable for their promises is something every Canadian can do.

Invariably after a panel, presentation or lecture on Indigenous issues in Canada, I’m asked “What can I do?” To those of you wondering the same thing, I’d ask that you not place the burden of maintaining momentum for effecting lasting change on the shoulders of Indigenous peoples alone. Every person living on these lands can do some of the work the TRC has laid before us. That’s what you can do: Take up that challenge and live change instead of waiting for it to happen. Commit to this, and in 20 years we could be passing on a legacy to be truly proud of.

Chelsea Vowel is Métis from the Plains-Cree-speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She blogs at âpihtawikosisân.com.


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