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Head of inquiry into residential schools says Ottawa lags on commitments

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Justice Murray Sinclair during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2015.


The Liberal government has made a lot of promises on reconciliation between Canada's Indigenous peoples and the rest of the country, but has a long way to go to meet those commitments, the man who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says.

"The words are there," said Murray Sinclair, who was the TRC chair and is now a senator, "but I don't think the actions meet the words."

The six-year inquiry was created as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to document the experiences of indigenous students who were forced to attend the institutions. Its final report included 94 calls to action for addressing the schools' shameful legacy.

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Related: Victims of abuse in residential schools may never be identified

Next Monday evening, Mr. Sinclair will deliver his first progress report on the calls to action. He provided an advance synopsis of his assessment during a telephone interview this week with The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Sinclair said some concrete steps have been taken over the 20 months since he released the inquiry's report. Municipal governments have renamed streets and erected monuments to honour victims, courts have cited TRC recommendations as they have changed or struck down laws, and corporations have implemented reconciliation strategies in the workplace.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government promised to implement all of the calls to action that fall within its jurisdiction, and last year's federal budget proposed investments of $8.4-billion over five years to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples.

But, despite those promises, "there hasn't been a lot of progress on the federal end of things," Mr. Sinclair said. "I think it's a question of inertia. It's very hard to change an institution the size of the federal government because there are so many built-in protocols."

When he gives his progress report at the CBC's Toronto atrium in an event organized by the Mosaic Institute, a think tank founded to bridge conversations between diverse communities, the senator will be joined by Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who launched the residential schools class-action lawsuit, and Dawn Harvard, the former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

In the interview, Mr. Sinclair cited examples of calls to action Ottawa has so far failed to implement: There is no new royal proclamation to reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between aboriginal peoples and the Crown. There is no covenant on reconciliation to identify principles for advancing reconciliation. There are few strategies for advancing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And there is no national council for reconciliation that would monitor progress.

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Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, said Canadians are understandably "impatient" to meet the calls to action. "I think that the fact that we've got 41 in progress and we are committed to implementing all of them means that we are also moving well on some of the most difficult," Dr. Bennett said. "I think we'll feel better as we [start] up the national council on reconciliation," which should happen shortly.

Mr. Sinclair's assessment of the progress made on the TRC's calls to action will come two weeks after Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak stood in the Red Chamber to extol what she called the "abundance of good" to come out of the residential schools, where the commission found physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

"While I was shocked at the extent to which she said what she said, I wasn't surprised, because I know how she felt before that," Mr. Sinclair explained. "She's got an area of interest in this that I think can be improved upon with more knowledge. She has not read the report."

Mr. Fontaine said there is no doubt Canadians are better informed about Indigenous issues as a result of the work of the TRC, and he believes the response from all levels of government has been encouraging. The call to action he most wants to see realized is the recognition of Indigenous peoples as full partners in Confederation.

"There is so much unfinished business," Mr. Fontaine said, but "this would be the absolutely important base on which everything else would flow."

Ms. Harvard said she has seen much desire for change since the calls to action were released. "I think a lot of average citizens don't necessarily know what or how they can contribute," she said. "And I think that's where we need to do a little better, outlining those processes. …"

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For his part, Mr. Sinclair said he is reluctant to say he is satisfied with the progress that has been made because he is worried that, to do so would cause it to come to a halt.

"So here's what I say: 'We're working on it,'" he said. "What I have seen so far indicates that people are taking the report seriously and I am happy about that. But there are some people who have not yet taken it as seriously as they should. And I am not happy about that."

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