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Truth and Reconciliation Commission leaves most calls to action unmet, despite federal government’s commitment

Residential school survivor Lorna Standingready (left) is comforted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, June 3, 2015.

Blair Gable/REUTERS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by promising that his government would implement all of the commission’s calls to action but, nearly three years later, the progress has been slow.

Few of the 76 calls to action that fall under federal jurisdiction have been fully met, and many have not advanced beyond the initial stages.

That is a problem for Indigenous people who looked to the report as a road map for healing the relationship with the rest of Canada.

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Murray Sinclair, the senator who was head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is frustrated that the lengthy investigation into abuses at the church-run Indian residential schools has not yet created the kind of change he and his fellow commissioners prescribed.

“It is time to stop studying this and start doing things,” Mr. Sinclair said in a recent telephone interview. “If we have a population of young Indigenous people who are continually feeling frustrated by society, that does not bode well for Canadian society generally.”

When the final report of the TRC was released in late 2015, Mr. Trudeau quickly went to a meeting of chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and said: “We will, with Indigenous communities, the provinces, territories, and other vital partners, fully implement the calls to action.”

But the annual plan of the federal department of Crown-Indigenous Relations, which was released in the spring, suggests there is much left to be done as the Liberal government enters the final year of its mandate.

Of the 94 calls to action, the departmental plan said 76 fall under federal jurisdiction. Just three of those had been concluded by January, 2018, said the department. Another three were in the final stages of delivery, 19 were “fully under way” and 51 were in the early stages of planning and implementation.

“Part of my criticism, over the past two years, has been that they don’t have a plan,” said Mr. Sinclair. Various ministers have been handed mandate letters telling them they must meet specific calls to action, he said. But “no one has sat down and done an assessment of what this is ultimately going to cost, and how we’re going to ensure that the cost analyses and cost evaluations are done to show that we are getting a return for this.”

The department of Crown-Indigenous Relations said in an e-mail that work is under way on more than three-quarters of the calls to action that fall under federal purview, including the establishment of a National Council for Reconciliation, which will provide ongoing accountability for the government’s progress on the TRC’s recommendations.

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But “the calls to action cannot be viewed as a checklist – with items to be crossed off once completed. This will require sustained efforts to continually make progress,” said the department. “Reconciliation is a journey, not a destination.”

The federal government has, over three years, earmarked more than $16-billion in additional long-term spending for Indigenous people.

Some of the calls to action will remain on the back burner for the foreseeable future – like the repeal of the law that allows parents to spank their children.

Others are moving along. There has been consultation, for instance, on a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. And a new oath of citizenship, which could be announced soon, will include the obligations of Canadians toward the country’s Indigenous people.

Some important issues, on the other hand, have only barely been addressed. Little work has been done to meet the six calls to action around locating and identifying the graves of the children who died at residential schools.

And some of the calls to action will be in progress for many years to come, including those that deal with reducing the proportionately large number of Indigenous children in Canada in foster care.

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Mr. Sinclair said he is reluctant to rank the TRC’s recommendations according to urgency, but those pertaining to child welfare were put at the top of the list for a reason.

“We had to ensure that we stopped apprehending children,” he said, “that we stopped incarcerating children, that we stopped separating children from their families, that we stopped allowing them to make the decision to separate themselves from their communities and from their future by taking their own lives or by continuing behaviours that are ultimately going to lead to further incarceration.”

Perry Bellegarde, the recently re-elected AFN National Chief, said the slow pace of progress on the calls to action has been discouraging. The TRC report “was a road map to closing the quality of life gap that exists” between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada, Mr. Bellegarde said. “We have all these great reports and, if governments don’t do more to implement their recommendations, they are all for naught.”

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