The First Nations residential schooling program was a very dark era in Canada’s history. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families, abused and many even died within this system. Atrocities happened within the residential schooling system that ruined lives and tore families apart. Thankfully, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government dedicated itself to working towards reconciliation with First Nations peoples on the issue of residential schools. On June 2, 2008, the Harper government launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was set up to investigate the many problems that arose from the residential schooling system and put forth recommendations to help achieve this reconciliation. In June 2015, Chief Justice Murray Sinclair tabled a list of 94 “Calls to Action” arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While a large number of these make sense, and would be easy steps for the government to make, many were just smoke and mirrors more intended to please liberal elites than actually accomplish the goal of reconciliation.
The first five recommendations outlined in the TRC’s Calls to Action (CtA) regard child welfare. This is a simple list of five things that the government can do to improve upon one of Canada’s worst child welfare jurisdictions. One portion of the child welfare section that particularly stands out to me is CtA #3, which calls on all levels of government to implement Jordan’s Principle. Jordan River Anderson, a young child from Norway House First Nation in Manitoba, died while in care of the Manitoba government while the federal and provincial governments argued over who would be responsible for covering the costs of his healthcare. Jordan’s Principle states that the government or agency of first contact will be responsible for covering the cost of required services for First Nations children, and in the case of dispute over coverage, the government or agency can then argue their case using jurisdictional dispute mechanisms. The implementation of Jordan’s Principle could save countless lives down the road, and is an obvious no-brainer when it comes to considering which Calls to Action should be adopted by the government. CtA #5 states, “We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to develop culturally appropriate parenting programs for Aboriginal families.” This goes very much along the same lines as calls for regional decision making on issues such as healthcare and education. The situations in aboriginal communities are very different from those in the big cities. Parenting programs intended for cities like Vancouver or Toronto would never work in aboriginal communities. It is important to ensure that parenting programs are appropriate for the setting that they’re based in, and the implementation of this Call to Action would go a long way in ensuring that these parenting programs are appropriate for those that they are intended to serve.
Section two lists seven Calls to Action in regards to education. CtA #7 focuses on eliminating education and employment gaps between Aboriginal Canadians and Non-Aboriginal Canadians. While much of this has been occurring with the assistance of industry in locations such as the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Northern Alberta, these programs should be greatly expanded, increasing the base of skilled workers that is so badly needed in the Canadian workforce. This would also go a long way in empowering First Nations peoples to seek opportunities for wealth and livelihood. CtA #10 is made up of seven different points regarding new Aboriginal education legislation. Point six in particular calls for parental decision making. This is something that conservatives at all level of government have been calling for. It’s an easy recommendation to implement, and one that I expect will be implemented without a second thought. Parents deserve the right to make decisions on the education of their children, regardless of whether they are Aboriginal or Non-Aboriginal. Things do get a little weird within this section, as CtA #6 calls for the government to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which states, “Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances. “ This author is honestly unsure of what banning parents from spanking their children would actually do to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal children. This section of the criminal code does not decriminalize child abuse, as it clearly states that only reasonable force is acceptable. I was spanked as a child, and I would assume that the same could be said for the majority of Canadians. It wasn’t abuse, and outlawing parents from reasonable discipline is simply asinine.
Language and Culture is next. All but one of these Calls to Action are reasonable, and should be relatively inexpensive. Language in particular is an issue dear to most aboriginal leaders. Even in the most remote locations in Canada, in the Nunavut Territory, Aboriginal languages are beginning to disappear. Many Aboriginal activists have fought hard to ensure the preservation of Aboriginal languages, and the government should embrace this as well. Where I take issue with this portion of the TRC list of Calls to Action is in CtA #16. This CtA is very vague, stating, “We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.” There is no mention of whether the intention is for all programs to also be taught in Aboriginal languages, or just those specific to Aboriginal culture. Regardless, Aboriginal languages are extremely diverse, and an attempt to run courses in all of these languages would be extremely expensive, with the cost falling on students through tuition increases for what would likely end up being programs with very low enrollment.
Moving on to the next two sections of the TRC’s list of Calls to Action, we find the topics of health and justice. While the majority of these Calls to Action simply aim to put on-reserve Aboriginals on the same playing field as off-reserve Aboriginals and Non-Aboriginals, CtA #22 absurdly calls for health care professionals to embrace unproven and unscientific traditional “healing practices”. As has been seen in so many cases over the years, the rejection of proven scientific medical care in favour of non-scientific traditional care based on culture or religion often results in death. This would put a large strain on the medical system as many people with serious illnesses would grow even more sick, resulting in further costs of healthcare and investigations into unnecessary deaths. CtA #23 part one makes the demand to increase the number of Aboriginals working in the healthcare field. As someone who has always opposed racial hiring quotas, this is simply illogical. Hiring should be based off of one’s qualifications, and not their race. A stronger alternative to this would be to work with Aboriginal and healthcare agencies to introduce new scholarships which would attract more young Aboriginal students into healthcare training programs, thus making them equal competitors for job openings. CtA #24 calls for mandatory education on the UN’s “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” for all nursing and medical students. Not only is this an expensive proposition, but also an unnecessary one. The educational demands for students in the healthcare field are already high enough. To add this clearly partisan indoctrination course to their requirements places a higher burden on students in a field that Canada is so desperately calling for, and it would take their focus off the science-based medical training that is required for them to correctly do their jobs. This Call to Action does make sense for those healthcare professionals who intend to work within Aboriginal communities, but not for those outside of Aboriginal communities. Similiarly, CtA’s #27 and 28 call for this same training for lawyers, and the argument against it is identical. CtA #30 states, “We call upon federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.” This Call to Action raises eyebrows due to the fact that people in custody are there due to their own doing. The government cannot control how many people are breaking the law, nor can they control the racial background of those breaking the law. CtA #34 point two looks to excuse those suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder from mandatory minimum sentences. As someone who has fought strongly against excusing crimes based on mental state, this is something that I can simply not get behind. All criminals should be held responsible for their actions regardless of their mental state. In CtA #41 point one, we finally get to a call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. This is yet another Call to Action intended to please liberal elites, but which won’t truly benefit anyone. We already know that the majority of these women were killed by their spouses or by other Aboriginal men. A national inquiry would take years and cost millions of dollars which would be better spent taking actual action towards fixing the issues that result in violence, particularly violence on reserves.
Finally, we move on to the set of Calls to Action regarding reconciliation itself. As there are 51 CtA’s in this portion, I will focus on the most impactful and the most asinine ones within the list. There are a number of mentions of the UN’s “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” within these 51 Calls to Action. Simply put, this declaration violates a number of sections within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Chuck Strahl stated in 2007, “In Canada, you are balancing individual rights vs. collective rights, and (this) document … has none of that. By signing on, you default to this document by saying that the only rights in play here are the rights of the First Nations. And, of course, in Canada, that’s inconsistent with our constitution.” Adopting this declaration would require the Canadian government to gain consent from First Nations on all matters of public policy, and would also re-open many land claims agreements, potentially causing chaos for the government, industry and individuals. Some of the Calls to Action contained within this “Reconciliation” section fall outside of Canada’s jurisdiction, including calls for Royal reconciliation and an official apology from the Catholic Church. While Canada can lobby for these things, they cannot be forced, and may not come even if Prime Minister Stephen Harper were to beg on his hands and knees. In CtA’s #53-56, we finally see something achievable. CtA’s #53-56 propose the establishment of a National Council for Reconciliation, which would be made up of both Government and First Nations leaders of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal backgrounds. This council would publish annual reports on the progress of reconciliation, and establish plans to work towards reconciliation while promoting dialogue to assist in that work. In CtA #62, the TRC calls for “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada,” This is logical, and this should have been introduced into educational curriculums country-wide decades ago. CtA’s #67-70 call for commemoration of residential schooling victims through museums and archives. Aside from mentions of the asinine UN declaration, these Calls to Action make a great deal of sense, and would be a symbolic way to express true sympathy and understanding towards the victims of the residential school system.
Some of the most important Calls to Action included in the TRC’s list of recommendations may be the ones included in the “Missing Children and Burial Information” section. The children who died within the residential schooling system were the greatest victims of all, and they deserve to be remembered. This calls for the establishment of a National Residential School Student Death Register, which could finally give burial location information to the families of these victims, and allow those families to find closure once and for all. Two more very achievable Call to Actions are #80, which suggests the introduction of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and #81, which requests the installation of “a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools National Monument in the city of Ottawa to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.” #82 calls for the same kind of monument to be erected in each province’s capital city. Perhaps the most absurdly unnecessary and worthless Call to Action within the TRC’s report is #84, which requests increased funding to the CBC. The TRC’s mention of APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network” in the very next recommendation makes this all the more confusing. Increasing funding to the CBC will do nothing for Aboriginal peoples, but slightly increased funding for APTN certainly would help in supporting reconciliation and promoting Aboriginal culture. Finally, in the final Call to Action, #94, the TRC calls to have the Canadian Oath of Citizenship altered to state, “I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.” To alter the Oath to Citizenship, having newcomers swear to centuries old treaties that they were never a part of is almost as absurd as calls to increase CBC funding. Again, it’s another TRC recommendation that only exists to please the liberal elite.
Despite putting forth 94 Calls to Action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission missed the mark on what would, perhaps, do the most in uplifting Aboriginal peoples. Not a single one of the TRC’s Calls to Action recommended the abolition of the Indian Act. Ultimately, it is this author’s belief that the Indian Act is the number one cause of the majority of issues facing Aboriginal peoples. The Indian Act has created a corrupt group of chiefs and councils who abuse the millions of tax dollars they receive, often pocketing large sums of money themselves. You see, the Indian Act doesn’t allow the federal government to give funding directly to individual residents on reserves. Instead, the money is given to the chiefs and councils, who then disperse the money as they see fit. Evidence of this corruption was front and center at the Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat, where Idle No More leader Teresa Spence was found to have hired her common-law partner, Clayton Kennedy as the bands co-manager at a massive six-digit salary (Kennedy was later charged with fraud and theft for his actions in that role). Further evidence of this has been revealed after the introduction of laws requiring band leaders salaries to be published online. In 2008-2009, approximately 50 band leaders were making salaries higher than that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Over 600 were making tax free salaries equivalent to a $100,000 salary for an off-reserve politician. The Indian Act also prevents Aboriginals from selling their own land, as they do not actually have individual property rights on reserves. While land ownership certificates can be transferred to other band members, they cannot be sold to those outside the band, preventing considerable opportunities for wealth. Furthermore, many bands do not actually own the land they live on, instead, the crown owns those lands. This prevents bands from selling their unused land to resource developers or others, again, preventing the opportunity to acquire wealth. I could go on about the issues with the Indian Act for another 1,000 words, but these are the two most blatantly obvious issues with the Act.
Ultimately, there is a long way to go before we can celebrate true reconciliation. The TRC hit some points right on the head, but completely missed the mark on many others. While Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has promised to adapt all 94 Calls to Action, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair have recognized the need to do a full analysis on the TRC’s recommendations before being able to commit to any of them. The cost of implementing all 94 Calls to Action would be massive, but the issues with that would go far beyond simple financial implications. However, with the implementation of the correct recommendations and the abolition of the Indian Act, Aboriginals would finally be set up to achieve their full potential. October’s election will go a long way in determining the future of the TRC recommendations, and I suspect that we won’t have a clear picture on the effects of the TRC until the first sitting of the new parliament. One can only hope that the government will take a responsible common sense approach when considering the sensibility of the Calls to Action proposed by the TRC. Until that point, anything said is just speculation.