Ken S. Coates is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's senior policy fellow for aboriginal and northern Canadian issues.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin changed the national vocabulary on Thursday. Her simple comment that Canada had attempted "cultural genocide" on indigenous peoples, an explanation central to aboriginal understanding of Canadian history and well-known to students of Canada's past, is a demonstration of this country's slow-changing political maturity on the indigenous file.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood, with indigenous leaders joining him on the floor of the House of Commons, and uttered a similarly meaningful statement about residential schools. He said, on behalf of all Canadians, that he was "sorry." Why it took so long is a mystery known only to the legal advisers who guided the government's hand, for aboriginal people and historians long knew of the perhaps unintended but nonetheless destructive impact of residential schools. But it was a start.
It was a simple and honest word, with substantial political implications. Chief Justice McLachlin has done much the same thing, saying out loud what she and many other prominent Canadians have long known, namely that Canada treated aboriginal people abysmally and made concerted efforts to undermine their cultures and deny them basic Canadian rights. It is a statement shocking only in the fact that a prominent Canadian leader is saying this publicly in 2015 and not years before.
If there is a downside to the Chief Justice's statement, it is that critics of judicial activism will likely find much to criticize. By speaking so clearly and forcefully on a topic of prime legal importance, with hundreds of related cases before the courts, she surely shows her hand. By providing a personal – but highly influential – observation about the injustice foisted on aboriginal people, critics will say, the Court has telegraphed its opinion and encouraged aboriginal litigants.
The latter is certainly true, but the Chief Justice is only stating what is clearly in the minds of judges, lawyers and aboriginal people across the country. There is no use sugar-coating Canada's mistreatment of indigenous peoples and communities. The country did mean, aggressive and destructive things – albeit often after convincing itself that it was moral, just and forward-looking in doing so.
Some will argue, perhaps, that the Chief Justice's words will fuel the "grievance" culture and industry that has drawn so many indigenous peoples to use the courts to seek justice and empowerment. This is hardly credible for the simple reason that aboriginal people have been saying for decades what Chief Justice McLachlin just said out loud. The grievances are there and are deeply imbedded in aboriginal politics. Furthermore, the Court's fairly systematic support for aboriginal legal demands is well entrenched in law and practice. Not much will change in this regard.
A new Canada can be seen on the horizon. If this country's leading officials – from Mr. Harper's "sorry" to the Chief Justice's use of "genocide" – can speak the truth out loud and with real conviction, perhaps a new path is actually before us. Canada needs a new relationship with aboriginal people. A shared understanding of what happened in the past – and a recognition of the lingering, multigenerational effects of colonialism, paternalism and racism – is only a starting point for real reconciliation and partnership.
Words matter. They provide trail markers for the public, politicians and civil servants. They remind all citizens of our collective responsibility for the past. Used properly, they can be the foundation for a renewed relationship and for a real chance to build a country together.
This statement shows the continued evolution of our language around aboriginal people – it took decades for leading officials to get to "sorry" and years more to use the word "genocide." There was a growing recognition in Canada that the aboriginal interpretation of Canadian history – reinforced by years of historical analysis – is the correct one. The old narrative, one that focused on supposed Canadian benevolence, is gone. A new one, based on a recognition of injustice, is taking firm hold.
Any attempt at sustained reconciliation must rest on shared understandings. If Canadians think the country has been kind and respectful to aboriginal people while indigenous people hold a contrary view, relationship building is difficult if not impossible. If, in contrast, there is a shared recognition of the history and impact of national aboriginal policy, and if the country is truly committed to righting historical wrongs, we finally have a foundation for a shared future.
If there is any sadness in the Chief Justice's stark and clear observation, it is that it has taken the country so long to get to the starting point of real and compassionate recognition of the weight of history on aboriginal people in Canada.
This story has been updated to show Ken S. Coates is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan