With a history of cultural genocide, reconciliation is the only way forward
The Vancouver Sun [Vancouver, B.C]
03 June 2015
The stories of residential school survivors and the solid documentary evidence of what happened makes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report troubling and thought-provoking reading.
Centuries after first contact, the commission asks us to accept that the despair and poverty that aboriginal people live in today is a result of our shared history.
For those of us who are not First Nations, it asks that we assimilate into our understanding of Canada’s past that the word genocide is the only appropriate one for what has been done.
But the commission is also firm that the next step beyond the tears, the grief, pain and humiliation is not recrimination but reconciliation.
Finding that way forward is especially important here in British Columbia, where the work of treaty settlement remains unfinished. In fact, the process has been all but abandoned after 20 years, $1 billion and only a handful of signed agreements. The 94 recommendations made by the commission chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair provide a pathway to reconciliation.
There are poignant ones related to the children who never returned from residential schools. The commission calls on the federal government to work with churches and aboriginal community leaders to tell the families of those children where they are buried and respond to the families’ wishes for commemoration ceremonies, grave markers or reburial in their home communities.
It calls on the government and the churches to identify, document, preserve and maintain the cemeteries and the graves.
Other recommendations are at once both arcane and aspirational. There’s a call for a royal proclamation to repudiate the long-held and unchallenged notions that when Europeans “discovered” this continent it was a blank, unpopulated space. Its effect would be to acknowledge the fact of our first peoples.
The recommendation for a new oath of citizenship again hearkens to the past. It would continue the requirement to swear or affirm allegiance to the Queen, her heirs and successors, but would also include pledging to faithfully observe the laws of Canada “including the treaties with indigenous peoples.”
But most recommendations are not new; most have been made repeatedly before by royal commissions, other inquiries and by child and youth advocates including B.C.’s Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
Those familiar recommendations seek to redress the terrible statistics of aboriginal peoples’ lives – the disproportionate number of children in government care, the distressingly high percentage of aboriginal people in prison, the unacceptably high levels of violence against aboriginal women and girls, the high levels of fetal alcohol syndrome and the shorter lifespans.
Many of these recommendations could easily be ignored again, as in the past, because most are neither cheap nor politically easy. But with bold leadership and an outpouring of public support, it’s possible.
It’s a tall order. Prime Minister Stephen Harper did make an official apology to residential school survivors in 2008. But he refused Tuesday to commit to any of the recommendations. In the past, he’s specifically refused to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and refused calls for an inquiry into the more than 1,000 murdered and missing women. In 2013, he killed the Kelowna
Accord, a series of agreements that provided for improvements to the education, employment and living conditions for aboriginal people. It was agreed to by the federal government, all of the provincial and territorial leaders and the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations.
In British Columbia, where almost the entire province remains subject to an unsettled claim, there seems slim hope of bold leadership on reconciliation since Premier Christy Clark brought the treaty settlement process to a virtual halt in March by withdrawing support for her own nominee to chair it.
Yet, if we are to move forward as a country and as a province, reconciliation seems the only possible way. The aboriginal population is the fastest-growing segment of Canadian society and the Idle No More movement was an indication of just how quickly and effectively the youth can be organized.
Fortunately, for now, they have only been mobilized into peaceful demonstrations. But how long can this last?
In the introduction to the commission’s report, Justice Sinclair wrote that the survivors of residential schools deserve our respect not just for persevering, but for remaining standing at the end of it all.
But he also argued that we now owe them the debt of doing the right thing. Reconciliation is the right thing and the only solution.