Bob Rae is former premier of Ontario and a former member of Parliament. He is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend, a law firm that acts for First Nations across Canada, and teaches at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance.
This week Canadians will be reminded once again about what the Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin last week called "the greatest stain on our human rights record," the "cultural genocide" that dates back to the colonial period and that has persisted for far too long.
The use of the "g" word has caused some consternation, but there can be no doubt that the deliberate purpose of public policy in Canada, found both in the Indian Act, the residential schools policy and the way in which treaties were interpreted and administered by both federal and provincial governments was based on the assumption that the only possibility of long term survival was assimilation as individuals to the culture of the majority.
The 1948 Genocide Convention, to which Canada is a signatory, defines genocide as "the intent to destroy, in whole or part" a group by killing its members, by imposing destructive conditions of life, or, significantly, by "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
This is a matter of historical record. These were policies promoted by the political leaders of the day, and supported by the majority of Canadians. There is no point in denying the truth or the consequences of what has been done.
The assumption of that time was that the culture of the aboriginal people was savage and barbaric, and that the only hope for the future was to remove children from their families, to put them in schools where their aboriginal personality would be destroyed and to provide them with the skills and culture that would give them a chance to assimilate.
This policy lasted for the better part of a century, and it was an unmitigated disaster and failure, an experiment in social engineering that destroyed lives, hopes, character and opportunity.
The churches of the day played a critical part in this experiment, running schools across the country and being the executors of the will of the state and the Canadian public. As a consequence the Christian churches of Canada bear a heavy responsibility for what happened, and the consequences with which we live today as Canadians.
The point of all this is not to inflict guilt, but rather to understand what has happened and what can now be done to begin reconciliation. It starts with an apology, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was both eloquent and sincere when he did that in the House of Commons in 2008. But it hardly ends there. The apology has to be matched by a commitment to action, and a mending of our ways as a country. It is in the action that we are lacking, both federally, provincially and most important in the lack of political will and commitment across the country.
We are a settler country whose original inhabitants can trace their ancestry back on this land thousands of years. They ignored the fact that First Nations people had their own laws, customs, governance and way of life. They ignored their spirituality, and worse, insisted that their own was better. They did not see them as equals, or even as equally human. We need to understand this, and ask ourselves the question: Have we completely eliminated these thoughts, attitudes and values from our own views today?
If we are honest, we have to admit that these attitudes do not disappear, or even change, easily and the fact that indigenous people are in a minority makes it easier for the majority to fall back into the easy complacency of believing that the abuses of the past are over. I heard someone suggest that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could lead to "closure" of what has happened, as if we could put this in a box and "put it behind us."
First Nations still come to governments of the majority as supplicants. The Indian Act is still the law of Canada, a monument of hypocrisy, discrimination and paternalism. It denies First Nations the jurisdiction, the revenue and the land to become effective governments. Both federal and provincial governments persist in their interpretation of laws and treaties in a way that forces indigenous people and their governments to go to court to seek their rights and title.
There are more First Nations children in care today than there were in residential schools, and in education, health care and resource management the recognition of aboriginal jurisdiction languishes in negotiations that go on interminably. This is not a legacy attached to any one political party. It is, tragically, widely and deeply shared across the political spectrum. The country is mired in denial and paralysis.
There is a way forward, and there are fortunately many who are helping to define a positive agenda of change, self-government or a fair and just sharing of resources and a willingness to recognize the need for justice. But it is a way that will require change.
We are now debating as a country the "truth" part of the issue, after generations of silence. But the question is not just "what happened?" It is also "what is to be done?"
The path ahead is not just about politics, it is a change of heart and mind that starts with each and every one of us, that understands that these challenges are not buried in our past but are alive today in our own behaviour and attitudes.
This is adapted from a talk given at a joint service of Bloor Street and Trinity St. Paul's United Churches on May 31.