On June 2, 2015, after six years and testimony from more than 7,000 people, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report on the legacy of residential schools and their profound impact on Aboriginal Peoples and their relationship with other Canadians.
During this dark chapter of Canadian history, lasting over 100 years, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their families to attend government-funded, church-run schools, some hundreds of miles from their homes. Created with the primary purpose to “remove the Indian from the child”, over 6,000 children reportedly died while in their care. Many more were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. According to former Prime Minister Paul Martin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin, and the TRC, the schools were an act of “cultural genocide.” The last residential school closed in the mid-1990s, but their impacts are far reaching and long lasting.
Like most, if not all, Aboriginal people, I have been affected by the residential schools with many family and friends who were either sent to them or impacted by their legacy. For Aboriginal people, this report is personal and deeply emotional as we are, once again, confronted with our country’s dark truths.
Over the past six years as the Regional Chief for BC, I have been honoured and humbled to attend a number of TRC events, none more so than on the eve of the demolition of St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay. Several of my family members, including my grandmother, attended there. For me, the most poignant moment was watching survivors and their descendants throwing rocks at the hauntingly disquieting edifice, still very much a symbol of cultural tyranny.
With the release of the TRC final report, there will be much talk about what happens next. Looking at reconciliation through the lens of the residential school experience is both evocative and compelling. Perhaps it will be the lens through which all Canadians begin to empathize with the personal impact and pain the colonial system forced on Aboriginal people. Perhaps it can be a catalyst for change. The TRC has made 94 recommendations or “calls to action” which seek to address the continuing legacy of residential schools.
At a macro level, and as a matter of unfinished public policy, reconciliation is fundamentally about how Canada still struggles to reconcile the pre-existence of Aboriginal peoples as distinct societies—as Nations—with the assumed sovereignty of the Crown. Our highest courts have told us that we must do this, must reconcile through processes developed jointly between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples.
We need to bring life to, and move beyond, the residential school apology offered in 2008. We must move beyond words. And it cannot be scattered programs or initiatives. It is a national project that requires the full engagement and commitment of the highest level of government. To paraphrase the late Nelson Mandela, beyond the important and necessary work of truth telling and of healing, reconciliation actually requires laws to change and policies to be rewritten – where the legitimate political institutions of Aboriginal peoples are recognized and empowered, and the laws they make enforceable. This transformative work in Canada is far from complete. Some positive steps have been made, but they are still too few and far between. In part, this is because there is no national framework to undertake the collective and important work of reconciliation.
Many Canadians may be surprised to learn there are few mechanisms to actually reconcile with Aboriginal peoples, even if there is the political will to do so. Federal policy is mostly not about reconciliation and is often at cross purposes with it. One of my primary focuses during my tenure as Regional Chief was to advance developing the legal and political mechanisms to support reconciliation.
There are solutions; there is even a plan. As part of this plan we proposed an overarching cross-government reconciliation framework that would guide all departments and ministries, which would be supported at the highest level in the Prime Minister’s office. This would operationalize what has been directed by the courts and set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What is needed, federally, is for the Crown to adopt a plan developed in partnership with First Nations that, with all party support, survives the life of one government. To accomplish this requires leadership, a deep understanding of the issues and— above all else—political will.
The truth is, it has not always been expedient for political parties to champion Aboriginal issues. Today this is no longer the case. Being a responsible and ethical government requires addressing the colonial legacy and completing the work of federalism. Aboriginal peoples are the fastest growing demographic in Canada and must be full contributors to the economy. Aboriginal governments are also playing an increasingly important role in land use and other decisions that affect all Canadians. Aboriginal peoples are being called upon to take their rightful place with respect to natural resource development and governance generally within Canada. They are in a period of transition, as is the whole country.
One of the reasons I became involved in mainstream politics was to help in this important work of reconciliation that is in the national interest, both socially and economically. As Regional Chief, I realized that without committed partners in Ottawa this work would never get done, or done properly. We need lawmakers to realize how important it is that this transition be successful for all Canadians. The future of Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians is mutually intertwined.
And this work must be accelerated. There is a growing lack of trust among some Aboriginal peoples – particularly among the young – and major proposals in resource development increase the pressure.
As a country, we still have a long way to go, both to heal and to change the legal framework under which Aboriginal Peoples coexist within a Canada where all peoples can see their reflection when looking into the mirror of the Constitution. But we are making progress. The work of the TRC is evidence of this. I, for one, am very hopeful. But this work is hard, and it will take the efforts of all Canadians. The real question we have to ask ourselves is “Are we truly ready for reconciliation?” I think we are.