Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will develop a blueprint for national reconciliation with indigenous peoples as he works to implement the wide-ranging calls to action issued by the commission that probed abuses of children at former Indian residential schools.
Mr. Trudeau told hundreds of people – many of them survivors of the institutions – who turned out to witness the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Tuesday afternoon that the document sets Canada squarely on the path to true reconciliation.
"The final report provides a way forward for all Canadians, building on the formal apology of seven years ago" that was issued by former prime minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Trudeau said. "The government is committed to walking that path with indigenous peoples in partnership and in friendship." The commission conducted a six-year inquiry into what went on inside the schools that operated between 1870 and 1996 and that were created to assimilate indigenous children into Christian culture.
Its weighty six-volume report covers a wide range of issues – some of them only tangentially related to the residential-school experience – and issues 94 calls to action to redress the painful legacy of the institutions. Many are aimed at the federal government, others are directed at provinces and territories, the municipalities, industry and the churches that ran the schools.
Mr. Trudeau promised during the recent election campaign that a government led by him would begin acting with the other jurisdictions to implement the commission's recommendations.
"We recognize that true reconciliation goes beyond the scope of the commission's calls to action," he told the Tuesday gathering. "I am therefore announcing that we will work with leaders of First Nations, the Métis nation, Inuit, provinces and territories, parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and other key partners to design a national engagement strategy for developing and implementing a national reconciliation framework, including a formal response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action."
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told reporters after the ceremony marking the report's release that her government is just now engaging with the other jurisdictions to determine what a reconciliation framework would look like and how the government can be held accountable on its promises to make significant progress.
When asked how long it will take to implement all of the recommendations of the commission, Ms. Bennett replied that some of them are already happening. "So we will want a quarterly report on how we're doing on things and we're going to try and be as transparent and accountable as we can," she said. "The recommendations that are squarely in our court, we will be accountable for."
Murray Sinclair, the chair of the commission, said he understood that change will not be immediate. But, he told reporters, he hopes a viable plan of action will be put in place within the next year.
"It will take generations," Justice Sinclair said, "so it is important that Canadians call on the federal government to create tools of reconciliation that will live far beyond today."
Under the settlement with residential-school survivors, all students who were forced to attend one of the recognized Indian residential schools are eligible for compensation. Plus, there are additional payments for those who could prove they suffered serious sexual or physical abuse at the institutions.
The report recounted the history of the schools, the special experience of Inuit children, the experience of Métis children and the fact that many of them did not qualify for compensation, the long-term legacies of the schools on the indigenous population and the principles that should guide reconciliation.
It also looked at the number of children who died in the schools – mostly due to diseases such as tuberculosis that ran rampant through crowded dormitories. The commission found records of 3,200 deaths, but Justice Sinclair said he believes the toll is at least 6,000 and studies from the early part of the 20th century suggest "the projection over the longer period that the schools were in existence, could put the number easily at ten times what we have estimated."
Marie Wilson, another of the three commissioners, said Canada has proved, in recent weeks, how quickly and collaboratively this country can respond to an urgent need in its efforts to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to this country.
"I especially hope that our country, having now learned so much about the harms in its own history, will also look close to home in considering what we deem to be urgent," Ms. Wilson said, "urgent to begin addressing the critical issues we are raising in the volumes of our TRC report, urgent especially to address the harms and to nurture the well-being of the indigenous children of Canada right here in our midst."
Members of the Conservative Party thanked the commission for the report but said in a statement that the government was being "irresponsible" in promising to meet all 94 calls to action, including the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Todd Doherty, the MP for Cariboo-Prince George in British Columbia said he was concerned that existing Canadian laws could be superseded by the automatic acceptance of that declaration, specifically because it says indigenous people have the right to free, prior and informed consent. That, the Conservatives say, could give First Nations, Métis and Inuit a veto over natural-resource development.