Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting to Truth and Reconciliation

Recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its work as part of the settlement for residential schools. Over six years and thousands of statements they released their reports detailing 94 recommendations to help heal the rift in Canadian society between Natives and Newcomers and the damage done to Aboriginal communities. You can read the 94 recommendations here

The report was met by many institutions with open arms. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, representing local governments across Canada, committed to achieving the recommendations. However where the greatest responsibility falls there has been much less commitment. The federal government has expressed no desire to work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to address the recommendations put forward by the commission. As Chantal Hébert reported, this is not unusual. Federal governments for decades have worked to shirk responsibility towards Aboriginal people following similar reports. 

Many of the recommendations are understandable and straightforward. Several can be clustered under the idea that the Commission wants people to know how Aboriginal's lives differ from their peers. For example, they recommended monitoring how many children were removed for protective care compared to non-Aboriginal children or to track funding to ensure equity between Aboriginal students on and off reserve and compared to non-Aboriginal students.

Working in the Northwest Territories I got to see the legacy of residential schools up close. The Government of the Northwest Territories is far from perfect but they have put a concerted effort into addressing these concerns. Given the composition of the population it is much more at the forefront of people's minds than here in the south. A year ago the Department of Education wanted to implement a junior kindergarten program. The program had a wide range of issues, which was reported in the media, but one issue was raised that my colleagues and I didn't think of. Community leaders and elders told us that they were taking the children too young and it worried them. JK means children as young as three-and-a-half would be in the schools and it struck a nerve and old memories of residential school.

It is easy to think that residential school is something off the past. The grainy black and white photos with the sombre faces and bleak environments certainly give a haunting image, but the last residential school closed in the 1990s and a great number of Aboriginal adults in this country had some exposure to them. Factor in the intergenerational impact. The culture around education is marred by residential schools and my former colleagues worked tirelessly to compensate for that.

But the Northwest Territories is not the rest of Canada. Far too often people in this country ask why Aboriginal people just can't "get over it" and challenge why their tax dollars should go towards supporting their welfare. I find it difficult to answer these questions calmly. A cultural genocide was inflicted upon a people and yet we feel more comfortable debating language than discussing how damage can be repaired.

As the next federal election this commission and its recommendations should not just be a question for candidates in areas with substantial indigenous populations but every riding across the country. Until Canadians and our representatives feel an obligation, a kinship and a partnership with Aboriginal Canadians than the process will always flicker out in the wake of more pressing matters for the majority, that's the truth.

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