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Truth and Reconciliation report calls for steps to improve First Nations' lives

Justice Murray Sinclair speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Ottawa June 2, 2015. (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters)


A call to action



After six years of combing through church records and crossing the country to talk to survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has concluded that Canada’s treatment of aboriginals at residential schools amounted to ‘cultural genocide.’ The commission released 94 recommendations Tuesday as part of a summary of its landmark final report. The report includes a common theme of concern that its work should not be forgotten, but rather should lead to concrete steps to improve the lives of aboriginal people in Canada

The government


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says it is time for a nation-to-nation relationship between aboriginals and the Crown that respects the promises of historical treaties.

Commissioners argue that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and recent Supreme Court rulings should guide a new era of aboriginal rights.

The report says it’s time for a new royal proclamation that would be issued by the Crown. It calls for this new relationship to be based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada reluctantly supported as a “non-legally-binding” and aspirational document.

Read the full list of recommendations (PDF)

“The commission is convinced that a refusal to respect the rights and remedies in the declaration will serve to further aggravate the legacy of residential schools, and will constitute a barrier to progress towards reconciliation,” the report states.

Any government policy changes in this area would have a significant impact on future development of natural resources. The commission argues that reconciliation should involve efforts to boost aboriginal employment. Stronger recognition of aboriginal land rights is viewed as part of the longer-term solution.

The TRC also says Ottawa should replace the current Oath of Citizenship with one in which new citizens swear to faithfully observe the laws of Canada “including treaties with indigenous peoples.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government will wait until the commission issues its final report – which is expected to be released later this year – before committing to further action.

“Obviously the commission has spent a long time on this report, a commission established by this government. It has issued a large number of recommendations. We are still awaiting the full report. The government will examine all of these and, obviously, read them before deciding what the appropriate next steps are,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons after the release of the executive summary of the TRC’s final report and its recommendations. The Prime Minister stated that Canada is already a leader when it comes to treaty rights.

“Canada is one of the very few countries in the world where aboriginal treaty rights are fully recognized in our Constitution,” he said. “That is one of the reasons why the government accepted the UN declaration as an aspirational document.”


A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in a February 1940 archive photo. (Reuters)

The church

Pope Francis is being asked to deliver an apology on Canadian soil for the role the Catholic Church played in colonization and managing most of the residential schools.

“Roman Catholics in Canada and across the globe look to the Pope as their spiritual and moral leader,” the report states. “Therefore, it has been disappointing to survivors and others that the Pope has not yet made a clear and emphatic public apology in Canada for the abuses perpetrated in Catholic-run residential schools throughout the country.”

The report traces the inspiration for the schools back to the Doctrine of Discovery set by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, which granted land in North and South America to Europeans provided indigenous people were converted to Christianity.

Mr. Harper is expected to meet with Pope Francis at Vatican City next week during a trip to Europe in connection to the G7 summit. His office declined to say whether the issue would be raised.

The Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches, as well as the Jesuits of English Canada, made a joint statement in response to the TRC’s recommendations.

“Notwithstanding the good intent and care of many who worked in the schools, it is clear that Indian residential schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done. We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy,” they said. “We acknowledge and welcome the specific calls to action that offer direction to the churches in our continuing commitment to reconciliation.”


Children take part in a protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday Feb 14, 2013 calling for equal education for First Nations. (The Canadian Press)

Education

The TRC argues that while education is at the heart of the residential-schools problem, it is also a key part of the solution. It is calling on provincial education ministers to ensure that all children are taught about aboriginal history and residential schools.

“Think about your Canadian history classes. Did the story of Canada begin only shortly before Europeans came up the river this city is built on?” asked TRC commissioner Marie Wilson during the Ottawa unveiling of the recommendations. “How honest are our textbooks about the traditional keepers of their land and their part in Canada’s story? How frank and truthful are we with Canadian students about the history of residential schools and the role our governments and religious institutions played in its systematic attempt to erase the cultures of aboriginal people?”

Postsecondary education is also seen as an area in need of improvement that could ultimately increase aboriginal employment and incomes. The report says governments need to increase funding to increase aboriginal enrolment in colleges and universities. It is estimated that it would cost $234-million to erase the backlog of more than 10,000 First Nation students who are currently awaiting financial support for postsecondary education.


Children hold letters that spell"Goodbye" at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School, in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories in a 1922 archive photo. (Reuters)

Children

Stories of murdered and missing aboriginal women have attracted significant attention of late. Over the past year, the Best Western Charter House hotel in downtown Winnipeg has been at the centre of debate over the failings of Canada’s child-welfare system when it comes to aboriginal youth.

The violent murder of Tina Fontaine, a Sagkeeng First Nation teenager, which occurred last August after she went missing from that hotel, attracted national attention to the issue.

The TRC says many of these tragic stories relate back to Canada’s history of residential schools.

The report calls for a public inquiry that would investigate the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls as well as links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools.

Reducing the number of aboriginal children in state care is a key recommendation and the commission would like governments to track and report on their progress each year. Specifically, the report calls for more spending on child welfare, improved training for social workers so that they are aware of the history of residential schools, national legislated standards and culturally appropriate programs that would teach parenting skills in aboriginal communities.


St. Michael's Indian Residential School entrance, with two students on the driveway, in Alert Bay, B.C., is shown in a 1970 handout photo. (The Canadian Press/Library and Archives Canada)

Memory

Royal Commissions have a history of being ignored. Many of the recommendations from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples were never implemented.

While the TRC is different from other commissions in that it was funded from an out-of-court settlement, the commissioners are clearly concerned that the six years of work should not be forgotten.

To that end, the TRC is calling for a permanent National Council for Reconciliation that would report annually to Parliament on the progress in implementing the commission’s 94 recommendations.

Some of the former school sites have been abandoned, leaving behind unmarked graves. The TRC calls for monuments or other forms of commemoration at the sites of former schools, as well as a national monument in Ottawa. Every province is asked to install a highly visible residential-schools monument in each captial city. The TRC also recommends a new statutory holiday that would be called a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“Above all, we must remember that this is a Canadian story, not an indigenous one,” said Justice Sinclair at Tuesday’s ceremony. “There are many who will put on blinders and pretend that this isn’t their issue, that the fault is not theirs. We are not calling on you to accept the full brunt of the blame for what happened. We are calling on you to open up your mind, to be willing to learn these stories, to be willing to accept that these things happened. Most importantly, we are calling on you to link arms with us, that all Canadians – indigenous or not, young or old, first generation or tenth generation – that we work together to heal and secure a better future.”

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