At a First Nations education conference in late January in Calgary, sponsored by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one of the presenters used the term “incrementalism.” She was discussing some initiatives in her school district to “Indigenize” the school environment. Her group was asking her province’s ministry of education to amend a regulation related to patriotism. They proposed that at the beginning of the school day, in addition to singing “O Canada,” the students would be reminded that their school is located on the traditional territory of a particular First Nation. She called it “incrementalism” after she received pushback from the powers that be, who called the initiative tokenism. She suggested — and I agree with her — that it is the small incremental steps that matter. Small steps can change the world.
Reconciliation is not a “big bang” but a process. It took centuries of power enforcement by the Crown for Indigenous peoples to find themselves in the unequal situation that they are in today. It will therefore take a long time to make that right. Efforts to reconcile have to be made by all parties; it is not just Indigenous peoples that are saddled with that responsibility. I suggest it is the duty of every Canadian to learn as much as they can about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights and about why the traditional homeland is so important to First Nations peoples.
In a recent IRPP Insight, David Newhouse described reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as a “Canadian project.” An unfortunate expression, if I may say so. When one thinks of a project, what often comes to mind is a start date plus an end date.
There will be no end date to reconciliation. Rather it has to be a living, ongoing process whose goal is to reach a critical mass, when understanding and respect for the values of Indigenous peoples and their diversity truly take their place in the social and economic framework of this country.
But there can be no reconciliation as long as Indigenous lands are being expropriated for the gain of non-Indigenous people, despite the duty to consult and the Indigenous right, as recognized by the United Nations, to free, prior and informed consent to all developments on lands that are subject to Aboriginal claim.
There can be no reconciliation as long as Indigenous communities in this rich country continue to live in Third-World-like conditions.
There can be no reconciliation as long as Indigenous communities lack basic infrastructure to ensure their people have safe drinking water.
There can be no reconciliation as long as the UN Human Development Index ranks Canada’s Indigenous peoples among the poorest of the poor, while Canada as a country ranks among the top in standards of living.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in giving marching orders to his ministers in 2015, told each of them that no relationship is more important to him and the country than the relationship with Indigenous peoples. He has proposed that Canada relate to Indigenous peoples on a nation-to-nation basis. This is the highest that the bar has ever been set for reconciliation by a sitting prime minister. He has a lot to live up to, and he will be measured by these declarations in 2019.
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Trudeau could institutionalize the practice of having the prime minister be the minister responsible for Indigenous relations.
Trudeau could start a new convention if he wanted to, and if he is serious about the concept of nation-to-nation relationships. He could institutionalize the practice of having the prime minister be the minister responsible for Indigenous relations. The idea is not new: many first ministers (prime ministers or premiers) take on this role. This move would elevate the issues of Indigenous communities to the highest level, and it would also mean that the apparatus of the Prime Minister’s Office is brought in, with all its clout and influence, to ensure that issues are addressed and moving forward. This is something that can be done within the machinery of government to advance the promise to make Indigenous peoples equal partners in the federation. A nation-to-nation relationship deserves nothing less.
Trudeau could also resurrect a cabinet committee on Indigenous affairs, which was part of the cabinet structure under Prime Minister Paul Martin. While the current Committee on Diversity and Inclusion has a mandate to “strengthen the relationship with Indigenous Canadians,” a committee dedicated to Indigenous issues would be preferable, and the items on its agenda would not have to compete for ministers’ attention with other concerns.
Some may say that changes like this are just for show and won’t really help achieve the goal of reconciliation. Some may say they are tokenism. But in my view these can be real, genuine incremental steps that can bring substance to the Prime Minister’s nation-to-nation declaration.
But we all have to take up the challenge and share in the duty to reconcile. In an age when protectionism is becoming the prevailing view south of the border, we have to be mindful of the thinking that brought about the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and the philosophy espoused by party leadership candidates like Kellie Leitch. Canadians must continue to practice the openness that we have been saying is our hallmark in light of the shootings in Sainte-Foy. I have faith that Canadians, as they travel the path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, will do so with the same respect, love and acceptance that has been shown to our Muslim friends following the tragedies in Quebec City.
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