Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has released a historic document – a five-year quest to record the truth of what happened at Indian residential schools – that essentially provides Ottawa with a road map to mend the fractured relationship between the country and its native peoples.
Murray Sinclair, the head of the commission, says mere words are no longer enough and that the Harper government must take steps now to break from past injustice and start the journey toward national reconciliation.
"The survivors need to know that, having been heard and understood, that we will act to ensure the repair of damages is done," Justice Sinclair said Tuesday in a speech to hundreds of survivors and supporters who jammed into a meeting room in a downtown Ottawa hotel to witness the release of the report, which described past native policies as "cultural genocide."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who made an extraordinary apology seven years ago for widespread abuses at the church-run schools, will speak to former students of the institutions Wednesday at an invitation-only gathering at Rideau Hall during the close of events to mark the report's unveiling.
Justice Sinclair met with Mr. Harper in private late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue of reconciliation and to push the government to do much more. "We believe the current government has yet to make good on its claim that it wishes to join with aboriginal people in Canada in a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other, and a desire to move forward together as promised … in the Prime Minister's apology," Justice Sinclair said.
Tuesday's 328-page report, which examined the damages inflicted on generations of indigenous people, gives the government a framework toward reconciliation with 94 recommendations that include calling on Ottawa to fully implement a UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people, revamp educational curriculums across the country to reflect the deplorable history of residential schools, and create a national day of reconciliation.
In a statement after meeting with Mr. Harper, Justice Sinclair said there was a frank exchange of views and that the Prime Minister listened to some of the commissioners' concerns and inquired about some of their recommendations.
But "I remain concerned with the government's resistance to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," he said. "We have offered to meet again with the Prime Minister once he has read the report and we look forward to continuing the conversation."
Justice Sinclair told reporters that he believes those who are in a position of leadership in this country should be willing to step up and ensure that the recommendations in the report – a final version of which will be released later in the year – are implemented as soon as practical.
Chief among them are a call for the Crown to build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by issuing a royal proclamation of reconciliation and a demand that Canada fully implement the UN declaration.
"A royal proclamation of reconciliation would reaffirm and restore a commitment to the nation-to-nation relationship, which we believe must be identified and exist between aboriginal peoples and the Crown," said Justice Sinclair.
And Canada, he said, was "sadly" the only country to raise objections last fall when the rest of the world agreed to implement the UN declaration that provides a framework for affirming, respecting and protecting the equality of aboriginal people and their rights.
When asked in the daily Question Period of the House of Commons about when the government would put the declaration into effect, Mr. Harper pointed out that Canada is one of the very few countries in the world where aboriginal treaty rights are fully recognized in the Constitution.
"That is one of the reasons why the government accepted the UN declaration as an aspirational document," he told MPs.
Justice Sinclair said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) agrees that the declaration is an aspirational document "and we are calling on them to aspire to the agreement and are asking them how they are going to do that."
The release of the report was greeted with excitement and tears by many of the former students who travelled to Ottawa to witness the occasion.
Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who attended a residential school, was instrumental in obtaining the settlement between former students, the government and the churches that mandated the establishment of the TRC.
"The story of how we came to be here is a long and painful one, but this day will help us put that pain behind us," Mr. Fontaine told the crowd. "It is a historic moment for Canada. The significance of this day is not just about what has been but equally what is to come."
By interviewing thousands of former students, and collecting millions of documents, Justice Sinclair and his fellow commissioners chronicled the story of an education system that saw young indigenous children taken from their parents and locked in a foreign world of fear, loneliness and lack of affection at the schools where they were forbidden from speaking their languages.
The report says the abuse was meted out by teachers, supervisors and also by older students. Hunger was a constant reality, children were raped and beaten, and thousands perished from disease, suicide, or exposure to the elements as they tried to escape.
An analysis of the available data that was done by the TRC suggests that between 5 per cent and 7 per cent of the children who attended the schools died there, said Justice Sinclair. That would put the number of deaths at the institutions at about 7,500, he said.
"Rather than denying or diminishing the harm done, we must agree that this damage requires serious, immediate and ongoing repair. We must endeavour instead to become a society that champions human rights, truth and tolerance, not by avoiding a dark history but rather by confronting it."