Perry Bellegarde is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations
The closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are under way this week in Ottawa. The Commission has played an important role in shining a light on the Indian residential schools, the darkest chapter in our shared history. The issue facing all of us now is our shared future. What is required for real reconciliation between First Nations and Canada?
I believe reconciliation is about closing the gap – the gap in understanding between First Nations and Canadians and the gap in the quality of life between us.
Closing the gap in understanding starts with confronting the purpose of the residential schools, which was nothing less than the eradication of First Nations identity from Canada. The intent was to kill our cultures and our languages. Once you lose those, you lose everything – your pride, self-image and self-worth. First Nations identities are central to Canada's identity. We must support and promote indigenous languages and cultures in the school system and in Canadian society as a proud part of our heritage.
The residential schools are the strongest, starkest argument for First Nations control of their education. We must commit to this goal now. No parent in their right mind would ever treat their children the way First Nations children were treated in residential schools – beaten for speaking their languages, made to feel ashamed and inferior, victims of experiments and assaults.
Our future belongs to the youth and we are the guardians. We must ensure they have access to an education that meets the highest standards and provides expertise in modern technologies combined with the wisdom of the ancestors so they walk confidently in both worlds. They will learn their languages and learn about their rights and the importance of self-determination. They will be taught in systems that are fairly funded with the same supports that other students enjoy. Reconciliation requires investments in First Nations education to realize the full potential of our children.
Canadians need education, too. Every citizen should learn our country's true shared history, from painful, shameful moments such as the residential schools and the Indian Act to uplifting moments like our original relationship – the promises we made to one another to share and live together in mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. Reconciliation means repairing our relationship by honouring those original promises.
We must restore that original relationship of respect, partnership and sharing in the wealth of this land. Governments must respect our right to determine what happens in our traditional territories and our responsibility to care for the lands and waters. The government's legal duty to consult and accommodate us must be honoured and we must pursue the higher standard of free, prior and informed consent. Where we agree on development, revenue sharing is essential. This will help build stronger First Nations communities. We were not meant to be poor in our own homelands.
These efforts will help close the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians. We do need a significant one-time investment to enable us to catch up and address unacceptable problems such as toxic drinking water and collapsing housing. We must remove the arbitrary 2-per-cent cap on funding increases for essential services because it does not keep pace with inflation or our booming population. Fair funding will ensure that our children have the same opportunities as every other child in Canada.
What will Canada look like if we act on this agenda? We will see justice, respect and healing for residential school survivors; First Nations thriving and enjoying the richness of their traditional territories; elders whispering their languages in the ears of their grandchildren; and the widespread recognition that First Nations rights are human rights, the rights that Canadians champion around the world. That is reconciliation.
The Statement of Apology for Indian residential schools was a shining moment for this country. But an apology compels action, otherwise it is empty and meaningless. Together, we can and must take action to create a brighter future for us all.