On Reconciliation, the government can and must do more

The progressive left has the opportunity to show leadership and use the federal government’s stated commitment to implement the TRC calls to action and usher in truly transformational change.

Wood carving art commissioned for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Photo by Eyesplash/Flickr.

A year has passed since the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa — a brief moment of self-reflection that punctured through a stubborn, willful and long-standing national blindness. 

In June 2015, the country’s gaze, it seemed, turned inward to the brutality and racial discrimination that run thick through Canadian history and which characterizes the treatment of Indigenous peoples to this day.

But Canadian’s attentions are fickle and averse to discomfort. Since, interest in knowing the truth of residential schools, understanding its legacy and committing resources to reconciliation has faded. And actual political action and policy change is, consequently, illusive.

Canadians should make no mistake: it will take enormous work from non-Indigenous Canadians, across generations and for decades to come, to untangle the mess of colonial Aboriginal policy and deep cultural prejudice that endures beyond the residential school experience.

We ought to all wonder with amazement at the resiliency and strength of Indigenous communities in spite of this. And it should be clear that the integrity of the federal government — any claims it makes to “real change” — hang in the balance. So too does the narrative of Canada as a progressive and inclusive country.

This government, unlike those of the past, has made very public commitments to building a new relationship with Indigenous peoples.  And the Liberal Party emphasized in their platform their intention to take Indigenous rights, and Nation-to-Nation relations, seriously. Indeed, the Liberals’ first budget made significant investments in a number of Indigenous priority areas (education, water infrastructure, youth employment, child and family services) with $8.4 billion earmarked over five years (though substantially back-loaded).

Anyone who has taken the time to read the TRC’s final report (or the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples) would understand the moral imperative to make good on these commitments.

The TRCs work should be compulsory reading, particularly for non-Indigenous Canadians. It is a meticulous rendering of the commission’s study of government archives and our deliberate policy of cultural genocide. It is also a devastating collection of testimony from survivors and inter-generational survivors the commissioner’s witnessed across the country. And, finally, it contains 94 Calls to Action formulated to ensure truth is honoured and our shared future can be reconciled.

In the wake of the TRC, then Liberal leader and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to implement all 94 recommendations.

It is incumbent that the government be held to this. Within those recommendations are the possibility of a truly transformative politics — the promise of a Canada that wrestles with its violent past, and makes good on its much celebrated commitment to justice and equity (never mind peace, order and good government).

MMIW Inquiry welcome

A bright spot this week was the unveiling of the Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, one of the TRC’s recommendations. Despite important criticisms from the Native Women’s Association of Canada and other Indigenous voices over its limitations -including the unclear participation of Provinces and Territories and the ability to interrogate police and other institution’s conduct- the Inquiry should be welcomed and its importance acknowledged.

Headed by an esteemed group of commissioners, it will give public profile to this national disgrace, and shine light on how we failed those murdered and disappeared and expose those institutions responsible. One hopes it will give some answers and closure to those grieving or still hoping for news of loved ones missing.

Moreover, the Inquiry gives institutional weight to investigate how the violence Indigenous women face is related to the discriminatory scaffolding Canada is built upon.  In other words, the systemic factors that emerge from our colonial past and which are evident, if one cares to look closely, in the discriminatory present.

The Inquiry will help all Canadians to connect the dots between the legacy of the residential schools and, for example, the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people in child welfare services and the criminal justice system. Or help us to look squarely at how the toxic mix of racism and misogyny operate in our law enforcement. And how all of this interacts to create the conditions for the violence that has taken so many lives.

Much more must be done

While the Inquiry represents an important step forward, the absence of any concrete plan to implement the other TRC calls to action is cause for deep concern.

As a number of honourary witnesses to the TRC wrote last year, one of the starting points for the government should be to create a National Council for Reconciliation as outlined in calls to action 53- 56. This Council would help to set benchmarks for measuring progress made on improving the lives of indigenous people and on the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations.

The creation of the Council would entail, specifically, “an independent, national, oversight body” to “monitor, evaluate, and report annually to Parliament and the people of Canada on the Government of Canada’s post-apology progress on reconciliation to ensure that government accountability for reconciling the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown is maintained in the coming years.” This would include publishing a “state of Aboriginal peoples” report that the Prime Minister would be responsible for answering to in Parliament.

As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets done— a perfect fit for a government that trumpets its obsessions with results.

Another set of recommendations ripe for immediate action have to do with education. The federal government should take leadership and push its provincial and territorial counterparts to implement a curriculum on residential schools, treaties, and Aboriginal Peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada. The teaching of residential school history, a key part of Canadian history, should be a mandatory education requirement for all kindergarten to grade 12 students.

Its absence is unconscionable.

There is no time to waste. The litany of let downs for Indigenous communities are already piling up under the Trudeau government.

Two weeks ago, the government about faced when the Justice Minister announced that the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a TRC recommendation and Liberal campaign promise, was “unworkable” under Canadian law.

Despite the significant investments in Budget 2016 referenced above, the deplorable 2% funding cap for First Nations remains this year, with funds back-loaded substantially, including into years beyond the current governments mandate.

Most despicable, however, has been the failure to respond to the Human Rights Tribunal’s historic decision that the Federal government’s fiscal policy racially discriminates against Indigenous children. A decision that came about from the tireless work of Cindy Blackstock and First Nations Family and Caring Society. As Broadbent Fellow Anna Stanley has argued, the “disturbing distributional arrangements that underwrite the production of wealth in Canada and undermine the value of Indigenous life” go beyond the discriminatory provision of services and include the exploitation of Indigenous land and resource wealth.

Indigenous justice an imperative for the Left

When it comes to justice for Indigenous people, the gap between words and actions is not just a failure plaguing this federal government or the Liberal Party. It is a challenge too for Canada’s progressive Left. A challenge to move beyond colour blind considerations of inequality and to place Canada’s colonial past and contemporary currents of racism at the centre of policy decisions.

This will be difficult. Confronting Canada’s colonial history means acknowledging that even celebrated social democratic achievements left out Indigenous peoples along with other groups. It means discomfiting discussions about how whiteness animates official Canadian history and dominant understandings of being Canadian.

Importantly, it also means confronting how on the left, too, white privilege continues to shape power dynamics and social location and whose voices get heard.

Indigenous leaders, activists, artists and movements have been calling out for a different way. Indigenous scholars like Val Napoleon, Hayden King, Pam Palmater and Glen Coulthard are shining light on a different path forward.

Moreover, groups like Black Lives Matter are making clear the connections they see between anti-Black racism and the struggle for Indigenous justice. Black Canadian scholars like Rinaldo Walcott are underlining the imperative for the institutional left to wake up to their own prejudices and inaction.

The progressive left has the opportunity to show leadership and use the federal government’s stated commitment to implement the TRC calls to action and usher in truly transformational change. Reconciliation depends on it.

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