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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir at a memorial event marking the first anniversary of the discovery of unmarked Indigenous child graves at the Tk'emlups Pow Wow Arbour in Kamloops, B.C., on May 23.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Eva Jewell (Anishinaabekwe from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation) is the research director at Yellowhead Institute and assistant professor of sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). Ian Mosby is a settler scholar and assistant professor of history at Toronto Metropolitan University.

When Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of 215 unmarked graves outside of former Kamloops Indian Residential School last May, Canadians reacted with shock and horror. Indigenous people, of course, had been warning for years that these kinds of discoveries were inevitable. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission even devoted an entire volume to the topic of missing children and burial information in its final report.

But, for many Canadians, it was not until the discovery of the thousands of unmarked children’s graves throughout 2021 that the genocidal reality of Canada’s residential-school system really hit home. Politicians promised swift change, makeshift memorials appeared across the country, statues fell and even the university we both teach at was renamed.

Now that a year has passed, though, how much has really changed?

Well, for one thing, news of mass graves of children no longer garner the coverage they once did.

Just last week, anthropologist Geoff Bird said that “the discovery of children buried in residential schools across the country was perhaps … the most traumatic event in recent Canadian history in terms of defining who we are.” Yet just a day earlier, when Saddle Lake Cree Nation announced they had discovered a mass grave containing “numerous children-sized skeletons wrapped in white cloth” on the site of former Blue Quills Residential School, it received little national coverage.

It seems that as the country’s shock subsides, the news cycle moves on. But many more Indigenous communities will bear the burden and horror of their own findings.

We write an annual report for Yellowhead Institute on Canada’s implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. When these calls were first released on June 2, 2015, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau – before he became Prime Minister – promised that his party would complete all 94 if elected. But the reality has proven to be much different. According to our most recent analysis, Canada has completed only 11 of the 94 calls to action over the last seven years.

While overall progress has been glacial, last year we found that in the three weeks following the Kamloops revelations, Canada completed three calls to action – more than in the previous three years combined.

At first keen on this change of pace, the feeling fizzled quickly when we realized the completed calls to action are what we see as “low-hanging fruit.” They are, in other words, actions that require little in the way of structural change and are largely symbolic in nature.

It’s not that these calls to action aren’t important; it’s just that the first 42 calls to action (the “Legacy” category), which call on Canada to end the ongoing systemic racism at the heart of its child welfare, education, language, health and justice systems, have gone largely unimplemented.

We don’t need to repeat statistics here to remind Canadians that Indigenous peoples in this country face far greater challenges in these areas than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It’s due to continuing structural discrimination that materializes in problems such as higher rates of Indigenous children in care, lower educational attainment and chronically underfunded schools; lack of support and resources for Indigenous languages and cultures; poorer health outcomes; and higher rates of incarceration.

It’s the legacy calls to action, then, that are the real barometer of Canada’s willingness to make the changes necessary to actually improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.

It should come as no surprise that Canada has only completed three of the legacy calls to action and that none of these address significant structural issues. Perhaps one of the most telling failures on Canada’s part is that four of the legacy calls to action simply ask that meaningful benchmarks and annual reporting requirements be established in areas such as child welfare (Call No. 2), education (Call No. 9), health (Call No. 19) and justice (Call No. 30). None of these have been completed.

If Canada can’t even report the truth about the way Indigenous peoples are treated in this country, how can we ever expect it to make lasting and meaningful change?

For too long, “reconciliation” has meant a few grand but ultimately symbolic gestures that seem to benefit non-Indigenous Canadians more than Indigenous peoples, while the latter is told to be patient – that progress takes time. It’s a reminder that unless this country can deal with the continuing harms it is causing to generations of Indigenous peoples, reconciliation will only ever be a comforting lie.

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