In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a statement of apology on behalf of the Canadian government to former students of the Indian residential school system. In it, he acknowledged the primary objectives of the system (“to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture”), recognized the deep intergenerational impacts of the schools, and stressed that “the burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country.”

For Canadians raised on a historical narrative replete with the myths of the mighty explorer and the overly polite peacekeeper, the apology brought a jarring realization that our shared history involved more than what had been highlighted in our high school history textbooks. The apology spoke to a system engineered to “kill the Indian in the child,” a system in which over 150,000 children were forcibly taken from communities of comfort and care and placed in environments engineered to strip them of their languages, cultures and traditions. This system would be identified as a form of cultural genocide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established mere days before the national apology. Its mandate would run until 2015, when its final report would paint a painful portrait of generations of abuse, harm and neglect.

Justin Trudeau, elected in the same year as the release of the TRC’s final report, committed his government to fully implementing its calls to action and reaffirmed the commitment made by his predecessor that, “moving forward, one of our goals is to help lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families, and from your communities.” For many, the election of a young prime minister who spoke openly of nation-to-nation relationships and a future beyond the Indian Act gave hope that such promises could be realized.

Yet, more than 18 months into his mandate, actions by the government have failed to keep pace with its lofty ambitions:

  • The class-action lawsuit filed by Sixties Scoop survivors in Ontario spanned nearly a decade, prolonged by eight attempts to throw out the case by both the Harper and Trudeau governments (most recently in November 2016). One week before the verdict was to be announced, the Trudeau government again attempted to stop the ruling, ultimately rescinding its request.
  • In response to the unsuccessful request for emergency funding by the Wapekeka First Nation to address suicide threats identified among youth in the community, Keith Conn, of the First Nation and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, argued that the request came at an “awkward time in the federal funding cycle.” Two 12-year-old girls later committed suicide within the community.
  • February 22 was the 10th anniversary of the complaint filed by the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, calling upon the government to address discrepancies in child welfare funding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. The government has yet to fully meet its demands, in spite of the issuance of three non-compliance orders. There are now over 14,000 Indigenous children in care in Canada (roughly half of all children in care in the country) — more than at the peak of the residential school system.

In emphasizing these ongoing injustices, it is important to acknowledge that notable progress has indeed been made since Trudeau came into office. But under a prime minister that has promised transformative rather than incremental change, the pace of change has not been quick enough.

If we trust the sincerity of the prime minister and his cabinet when they speak of a desire to take meaningful steps on our collective reconciliation journey (which I do), what then is holding us back from a revitalized relationship between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians?

Misplaced faith in old structures

With the 1969 White Paper, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (and Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien) sought to dissolve the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs and shift the provision of its services to the same federal and provincial agencies that were providing them to non-Indigenous Canadians. There was a strong faith that these broader political structures could be used to ease the inequities and barriers faced by Indigenous peoples across the country: through equal access to the same programs available to all Canadians, Indigenous peoples would thrive within Trudeau’s vision of a “just society.”

The White Paper was ultimately abandoned, but the overall approach to Indigenous relations remains. Despite drastically different messaging on relations with Indigenous peoples, the federal government under Pierre Trudeau’s son continues to place its faith in Canada’s long-standing traditional political structures (federal ministries, departments and Crown corporations), increasing funding to them as a means of addressing persistent inequities and divisions.

This is perhaps most tragically demonstrated by the case of child welfare funding – despite the announcement last year of an additional $382 million of funding over 3 years, Indigenous Affairs and the Ministry of Health reported in February that by January only $11.4 million (10% of the amount earmarked for the fiscal period ending in March) had been spent. Sony Perron, senior assistant deputy minister of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit health branch, subsequently acknowledged that “there is really something broken with the system in terms of not being able to connect with the children,” and that “we don’t have the infrastructure to identify these children in need that are underserved.” Earlier this month, it was revealed that the federal government had concurrently spent $707,000 in legal fees fighting the very Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order that had initially led to calls for increased funding for Indigenous child welfare.

In this way, the optimism and approaches of both Trudeau governments ignore the fact that the mandates of many of these ministries and agencies date to the same period in our country’s history as the repressive policies we now seek to counter. As noted in the 1996 final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “Most of the institutions governing Aboriginal life today originate outside Aboriginal communities” and “operate according to rules that fail to reflect Aboriginal values and preferences.” And efforts to modify, replace or supplement these structures to better reflect “nation-to-nation” relationships have yet to bear fruit.

There are, meanwhile, a few promising signs of change through the creation of some of these necessary alternative structures. The first steps toward the creation of a National Council for Reconciliation were announced by the federal government in December, while the independent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (established following the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) has been bolstered by recent funding from both the federal government and the musician Gord Downie.

Still, as the Globe and Mail paraphrased Justice Murray Sinclair as he examined progress on the TRC calls to action, “There is no new royal proclamation to reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between aboriginal peoples and the Crown. There is no covenant on reconciliation to identify principles for advancing reconciliation. There are few strategies for advancing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And there is no national council for reconciliation that would monitor progress.”

The way forward

As we mark the second anniversary of the release of the TRC’s final report this spring and nearly a decade since the national apology was delivered on the floor of the House of Commons, we have reached a pivotal juncture in the reconciliation movement. This is the 150th year of Confederation; what will reconciliation in Canada encapsulate and entail in the next 150 years? Will we be bold in scope, or content with cosmetic changes that fail to address long-standing historical inequities? Will we be willing to disrupt the established social, political and economic systems that fail to provide service equally to all Canadians, or will we engage in reconciliation only insofar as it doesn’t challenge the status quo?

The federal government has pledged (through both Trudeau and Stephen Harper) to shoulder the burden as we begin the long road toward national healing and renewal. Yet it has become clear that there are limitations on what is deemed feasible and viable in the eyes of those in the nation’s capital, who see reconciliation as needing to fit within the framework of existing institutions. I fear that in placing the responsibility for meaningfully and sustainably advancing reconciliation in their hands, we will simply not move quickly enough and the scope of change will be limited. In a country where Indigenous children are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Indigenous children, where 29 short-term and 97 long-term boil water advisories are in effect in Indigenous communities and where life expectancy for Indigenous Canadians is five to seven years lower than for non-Indigenous Canadians, we cannot continue to accept incremental change.

If reconciliation is to be meaningfully sustained in Canada, we must depoliticize the movement by continuing to bring the reconciliation conversation away from Parliament Hill and to the kitchen tables, boardrooms and coffee shops of this country. Dialogue around reconciliation must shift away from commissions and reports toward the concrete actions we can each take in our personal and professional lives. While acknowledging that there exist responsibilities and obligations that will forever rest with the federal government and the Crown, Canadians must not become comfortable with leaving this work solely in their hands. Opportunities to undertake measures towards reconciliation are boundless, from reforming corporate practices and policies to providing space for youth to share their vision for a more inclusive, equitable and just future. For those unsure of how best to begin to meaningfully engage in this work, facilitated workshops and programming offered by such organizations as Canadian Roots Exchange, the 4Rs Youth Movement and Reconciliation Canada are an excellent start.

There is no time for complacency – the time is now for each of us to act. Only then will we begin to reshape this nation, and in doing so, we will send a strong message to our elected officials about the type of country we wish to leave for future generations.

This article is part of the Public Policy toward 2067 special feature.

Photo: People gather to watch as a totem pole is raised in the spirit of reconciliation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, April 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Alexander Dirksen
A proud Métis policy wonk, strategist and facilitator, Alexander Dirksen is passionate about helping to craft an inclusive and equitable future for our country through the meaningful advancement of reconciliation. Alexander holds an MA in global affairs from the University of Toronto and a BA (with honours) in international studies from Simon Fraser University.

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