The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 382-page summary of its final report includes 94 compelling recommendations. The task now is their acceptance and implementation, and the reorientation of Canadians’ strained attitude toward reconciliation.
We have been here before. As far back as 1907, the Bryce Report chronicled the atrocious conditions at residential schools, and Saturday Night magazine, in turn, reported that “even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed upon our Indian wards.” Almost a century later, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples prescribed 440 ways to improve the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada, laying out a 20-year plan whose implementation would cost tens of billions of dollars, and resistance to which has likely squandered even more than that sum in court battles alone. To say nothing of the Hawthorn Report (1967), the Penner Report (1983), provincial justice inquiries in Manitoba (2001) and Ontario (2007), and even the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (2007).
The formulaic response to these moments of clarity and accompanying opportunity has been tacit acceptance, followed closely by delay and obfuscation, then apathy, and finally the status quo. It is a tradition in this country to ignore progressive solutions to the Canadian problem. This aversion is rooted in a resistance to sacrificing privilege and sharing power.
It is important to preface the argument we are making here with a note about healing – the face of reconciliation that dominates the current conversation. With all our hearts, we, too, know that healing is required. Every day, we see the need for healing in our communities and in our lives. The pain of generations of men and women has been on display for Canadians to see, as well. For the past seven years, indigenous peoples have spoken with clarity, honesty and courage. And in writing this, we do not intend to distract from the affection and support for those survivors and their families that indigenous peoples feel at this moment.
Yet, we must also talk about restitution. Reconciliation requires restoring what is owed to indigenous peoples: the return of land; the re-emergence of our legal and educational systems; the rebuilding of structures that will allow families to reconnect and thrive; answers and action on missing and murdered women and girls; a return to language fluency and vibrant spiritual practices; and the return of children still being taken away from their communities. Some of these are included in the TRC’s report, some are not. All are just, by any measure.
That does not mean Canadians will oblige. Land, for instance, has been among the clearest sources of conflict. Residential schools were one strategy among many to force indigenous peoples from the land. The dispossession continues, as provincial and territorial governments greedily protect their unfounded title. Correspondingly, restoring indigenous title to that land is among the loudest demands by indigenous peoples. Occupying contested land has, historically, been met with force. There seems little room in Canada’s constitutional framework for a division of federal, provincial and indigenous powers. Jurisdictions must be renegotiated.
Current education policy is also an unrestrained disaster. Schools in First Nations communities are shockingly under-resourced, as residential schools were. And in provincial curricula, indigenous peoples are lucky to appear at Thanksgiving, if at all. Changing these conditions requires significant funds to build schools, repair them, and pay teachers fair salaries. More, changing the curriculum in each jurisdiction, effectively rewriting history, is a process that will challenge the very identity of Canada. Stories that need to be told include those of forced removals through policies of aggressive assimilation, and the disenfranchisement of indigenous war veterans.
The list goes on. As the TRC recommends, there are many areas that need to be addressed. Among them is the overhaul of a justice system that sends indigenous men and women to prison en masse. Increased and fair indigenous representation in terms of juries, lawyers, judges and policing can mitigate this. Restorative-justice practices have been implemented in some communities, but these are few and far between.
The child-welfare system, which houses more children today than at the height of the residential school era, is another obvious priority. The transfer of authority to indigenous governments, so that they can develop their own agencies to protect indigenous children, is essential. This should coincide with educational programming, for existing provincial child-welfare agencies, about the ongoing impact that residential schools have on families.
The TRC also highlights the need to revitalize our nearly extinguished languages. Funding for language immersion and retention programs will help to restore what was once forbidden in residential schools.
Each of these disturbing abuses is a direct consequence of the residential school system. And change for each requires significant institutional transformation, financial resources and will.
The sheer scope of the challenge may contribute to paralysis; ongoing racism certainly does. But above all, there will be a resistance to bona fide change because interests will clash. Reconciliation requires the transformation of entrenched power relations, the release of illegally acquired territory, and the acceptance that the long hoped-for assimilation of indigenous people has and will continue to fail.
Reconciliation will not be easy, because the reality that indigenous peoples face is born of violence: the violence of residential schools, the violence of broken treaty promises, the violence that labels them terrorists when they defend their land, the violence that sees indigenous women and girls vanish when walking down the street.
This leads naturally to a deep skepticism of the concept of reconciliation itself. We do not mean to discount a common future. Rather, we want to say that reconciliation is about restitution. Without it, meaningful reconciliation will be incomplete.