One hopes the sitting government — or a new government after the fall election — would take seriously the job of reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples after the release of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report.
The sad reality of the residential schools legacy needs to be remembered and Ottawa as well as the provinces need to tackle its legacy.
Many of the 94 recommendations contained in that report are achievable and make sense in terms of reversing the policies of assimilation that drove the residential schools agenda. Others, however, do not. They go beyond that agenda and speak more to questionable modern-day national and even international political agendas. Legislators need to avoid these policies and focus on made-in-Canada policies of reconciliation. We must also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that for decades, efforts at reconciliation were achieved.
First of all, the government should pay particular attention to the recommendations that actually attempt to strike back at policies that sought to undermine indigenous cultures, languages and spiritual practices. For starters, policies designed to protect and enhance aboriginal languages make sense in light of the residential schools experience. The report is correct when it states that, “Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.” By government finally enacting an Aboriginal Languages Act that recognizes the fundamental importance of aboriginal languages to Canadian society — along with reasonable funds to back them up — there is an acknowledgement of a reality that predates the traditional French-English bilingualism conflict.
Next, the report’s authors are correct in calling for the closing of the education gap between Aboriginal Peoples and non-aboriginal ones. Calling on the federal government to finally enact federal aboriginal education reform legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal Peoples is also essential for reversing a past agenda of imposing education agendas that sought to assimilate rather than strengthen Aboriginal Peoples. This doesn’t mean Ottawa should abandon standards, only that it remove ministerial power.
Finally, it is wise for governments to heed the recommendations calling for teaching about the residential schools era in order to increase our literacy of this historic period. Calling upon media and museums and archives to preserve the legacy of these institutions is worthy of support.
As an aside, it bears mentioning that the government already passed legislation targeting the worst excesses of the residential schools era. Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, was a Tory private member’s bill that passed into law in 2014 and removed references to the residential schools from the Indian Act.
Policymakers should also pay attention to recommendations related to health, social welfare and justice. Many of these calls to action deal with the inter-generational effects of the residential schools experience, including the tragic high number of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Where the TRC Report gets sketchy is its acceptance of political agendas that go beyond correcting the residential schools legacy. For example, when performing a search of the words, “United Nations,” there are 25 references in the 94-recommendation report, most of which deal with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This UN declaration seeks to enshrine specific human rights standards in a variety of ways for indigenous peoples around the world. Although Canada eventually endorsed the document in 2010 (after initially rejecting it in 2007), the non-legally binding document speaks to a one-sized-fits-all solution to indigenous policy that was made in New York City and Geneva, as opposed to right here in Canada.
This is not to argue that the declaration does not contain some laudable provisions that deserve support. However, Canada needs to focus on finding solutions that respect Canada’s laws, governance and Constitution. The TRC report, however, states clearly that, “We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.”
In the past, the federal government argued that the overly broad provisions in the declaration could interfere with Canada’s land claims and other policy areas. Canada’s left-of-centre parties have adopted the UN declaration as an essential part of their aboriginal agenda. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, head of a new NDP government, made the UN declaration a central plank of her party’s aboriginal platform. The federal Conservatives recently got into hot water for voting against an NDP private member’s bill that would have aligned Canada’s laws with the UN declaration. Perhaps the authors of the report could have focused less on this politically contentious document.
Lastly, the authors should have focused on Canada’s existing experience with reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just about the future; it is about the past and present. Governments long ago removed references in the Indian Act to prohibited cultural practices. Rather than adopt the assimilation-oriented recommendations of the White Paper in 1969, our governments enshrined aboriginal and treaty rights in our Constitution, thereby affirming aboriginal difference as our framework for moving forward, rather than seeking to undermine difference. Since the 1970s, Canada has also adopted policies that seek to address specific and comprehensive land claims, recognizing that First Nations have rights to their land. Finally, the government repealed a section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that exempted aboriginal Canadians from its provisions.
Over the last few decades, our courts have recognized that First Nations have a right to be consulted and accommodated if development activities occur. The next wave of reconciliation should involve bringing economic prosperity to aboriginal communities after being excluded by the Indian Act. Ottawa should also focus on recognizing autonomous aboriginal communities that control their own land and resources.
Clearly, governments have a long road ahead of them in terms of reconciling with indigenous peoples. The TRC report, for the most part, contains parts of a reasonable road map. However, governments must seek solutions that really deal with the residential schools legacy and leave the political agendas to the parties to fight over.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, N.S.