In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released 94 Calls to Action, detailing a roadmap to follow if Canada truly wanted to repair its relationship with Indigenous peoples.
I spend a lot of time writing and talking about the calls, which were created after nearly 6,000 survivors and witnesses bravely shared what it was like to be ripped away from their families and placed into a foreign world where punishment, God and submission were the tools used to “educate” children. The TRC’s report was meant to “arm the reasonable,” according to former senator Murray Sinclair.
Yet we find ourselves at the close of 2021 – six years after the TRC released six detailed volumes of how state-sanctioned genocidal policies led to the deaths of at least 4,000 children and the spiritual maiming of untold numbers of survivors and descendants – with only 11 out of the 94 Calls to Action completed.
And according to the Yellowhead Institute’s annual reconciliation status report, which was released this week, only three calls were completed in 2021 – all in June, after T’k’emlúps te Sewépemc reported the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The completion of those three calls represented “more action on the Calls to Action in three weeks than in the last three years,” noted Yellowhead Institute scholars Dr. Ian Mosby, an award-winning food historian, and Dr. Eva Jewell, who is from Deshkan Ziibiing, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. Sadly, those three calls – Call 80, for a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation; Call 15, for the creation of the position of Aboriginal Languages Commissioner; and Call 94, to update the oath of Canadian citizenship to add a pledge to the treaties – were largely symbolic. They were easier for politicians to pass than the ones demanding structural changes to elevate Indigenous rights.
Infuriatingly, the calls to protect Indigenous children have been largely ignored by the government. Survivors of residential schools insisted that calls around child welfare were prioritized as the first five, to ensure that future generations wouldn’t have to live through the horrors of institutionalized care; the seven that follow address inequity in the education of our youth. And yet efforts to fix those broken systems have required legal efforts and judicial enforcement.
After a nearly 15-year-long battle over the structural and discriminatory underfunding of services for Indigenous kids in care, the federal government announced that it was earmarking $40-billion for a settlement in the case. But this money – half of which would compensate First Nations children and families whose lives were destroyed by child welfare, and half of which would aim to repair the system – did not come about because bureaucrats studied the first five Calls to Action and suddenly decided to act. As Dr. Jewell says, this “isn’t a gift – it was an order,” compelled by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and upheld by the Federal Court. That order called for Ottawa to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child (along with their primary guardian) who had been in the on-reserve child welfare system since 2006.
So this settlement would not have come together without court action, started on behalf of children by Dr. Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, as well as the Assembly of First Nations. This is the legacy of Jordan River Anderson, who died when he was 5 as governments fought over who would pay his medical bills.
It is the courts, not the government’s own duty or drive, that continue to move Canada forward. It was a legal deal – the Indigenous Residential School Settlement Agreement – that mandated the establishment of the TRC, not a Canadian politician who woke up one day and decided to advance a mission.
TRC Calls 6 to 12 address the colonial legacy of violent policies of assimilation, coupled with a chronically underfunded education system that denies First Nations kids living in northern communities their right to access a high-school education. And yet, even after 145 additional recommendations came out following the deaths of seven First Nations high-school students who had to leave their reserves and died in Thunder Bay, even Call to Action 9 – which calls for Canada to create annual reports on the funding gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and the income gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults – continues to be ignored.
It is a crucial first step, because if you can’t measure the problem, you can’t fix it. And yet Canada can’t seem to muster up the resources to even quantify a problem that shortchanges our children’s future.
When will Canada see that investing in Indigenous children benefits all kids, leaving them with a legacy of love and understanding? The children who are alive today need to be nurtured and fed – not nickel-and-dimed and destroyed.
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