Allan Gregg is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategies and a former adviser to Justice Murray Sinclair and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops has sparked fresh recriminations and new shame.
Without offering a direct apology, Pope Francis addressed “the shocking news.” Before that, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that “residential schools were a reality – a tragedy that existed here, in our country, and we have to own up to it.” The findings had left the country “reeling,” according to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
But what have we really learned if these statements must be so newly declared, time and time again?
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,” a report that documented 3,200 deaths at residential schools; this estimate has since increased to 4,100, and TRC co-commissioner Murray Sinclair now believes the number could be as high as 20,000. The report also found that the schools and governments could not – or would not – record the cause of death in one-half of these cases and that a third of the victims were unidentifiable by name. Against this background, what may be more “shocking” than the unmarked graves discovered in B.C. is that we have known about deaths at residential schools for more than half a decade.
Thirteen years ago, then-prime minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Indigenous people for the travesty of residential schools. Six years ago, when the TRC issued its final report, Mr. Trudeau promised that, if elected, he would honour and implement all the commission’s 94 calls to action. Six years later, he is still promising “concrete action.” It’s no wonder many Indigenous leaders have sounded so weary when responding to the latest news: Reconciliation has, to this point, been mostly about words and symbolism.
The hard truth about reconciliation is that the harm done to victims is multi-generational and reverberates through time, while the perspective of the perpetrators and the complicit is in the moment, blind to the consequences of the past.
Too often, Canadians look at the living conditions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in this country and not only fail to link those circumstances to historic wrongs but also use them, either tacitly or explicitly, as the foundation for racist views. And while we know much more about the deplorable treatment of residential-school students, non-Indigenous people know only half the story and have no frame of reference to understand the rest.
Put yourself in the place of the parents whose children were taken away from them. What parenting skills would you attempt to hone with no child at home? Think more broadly about what it would look like if an entire community did not have children. How motivated and productive would you be knowing that your entire family structure had been ripped asunder – and that the same was true for all your neighbours? When the children came home – if they did – they were often broken and traumatized. How likely is it that you would teach them, as I was, that “a good education is the key to success,” when ”education” itself was the source of your sorrow? Even beyond inadequate housing, health care and undrinkable water, it is this lived experience that is at the root of heartbreaking levels of alcoholism and incarceration, as well as poor graduation rates and shortened life expectancy, in Indigenous communities.
With the passage of Bill C-15, Mr. Trudeau now has an opportunity to take concrete action to move us toward reconciliation. The bill, which is set to become law, aims to establish a framework that would align Canadian legislation with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Controversially, UNDRIP’s stipulations include requiring that all economic and resource development on historic, unceded Indigenous lands have the free, prior and informed consent of the peoples affected. This has been untested in the courts, and no one seems to know exactly what “free, prior and informed consent” will involve – but it has many members of the Canadian business and development community with their fingers between their necks and collars. To assuage their concerns, Justice Minister David Lametti has insisted that Indigenous people would not have a “veto” over Canadian development.
But Mr. Lametti could do all of us a big favour – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike – if he reversed himself and said that this is exactly what Bill C-15 means.
Undefined and untested, Bill C-15 will find its way to the courts very quickly, then potentially remain there for decades. The record of court cases pitting Indigenous rights against development is staggeringly either equivocal or in favour of Indigenous rights, which is how Canada has developed a global reputation for being unable to proceed with any infrastructure development challenged by Indigenous interests. This has left us with the worst of all worlds: 5 per cent of Canada’s population feels alienated and marginalized by a country in which resource development is permanently stalled in intractable litigation.
If the federal government were courageous enough to concede that Indigenous rights would include a formal veto over these kinds of projects, developers would be forced to truly negotiate and make Indigenous parties partners in their plans. This would be difficult and painstaking, but it would be far more productive than the purgatory in which development efforts exist now. Over time, both parties would learn more about the other, and deals would get done. And when Indigenous people finally feel that they are partners, with a seat at the table that makes decisions about land that was once theirs, then – and only then – can reconciliation for past wrongs start to occur.
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