The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report released earlier this week begins with a harsh indictment: for over a century the central goal of Canada’s Aboriginal policy, particularly its establishment of residential schools for First Nations youth, amounted to “cultural genocide.” How the country deals with this verdict, and how many of the commission’s 94 recommendations will actually be adopted, remains to be seen. Early reaction is laudatory in nature, though the government stopped short of echoing the language of the report or committing to any of the recommendations. First Nations groups, newspapers and civil society organizations praised the commission’s work, though some took a critical view.
First Nations people say words must turn to action
Many people in First Nations, Inuit and Dene communities applauded some of the commission’s recommendations, in particular calling on Canada to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There was a sense of vindication around the commission’s conclusions: “it has demonstrated the righteousness and importance of our struggle,” former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine said.
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There was also, above all, a sense that pressure must be put on all Canadians to follow through: “The commission has shown us a path forward. As a nation, we must take that path,” said Abegweit First Nation Chief Brian Francis. Jobie Tukkiapik of Makivik Corporation, the representative of Quebec’s Inuit, echoed that sentiment: "Now we have been given the whole story and a blueprint to recovery. Let's do it.”
Conservative government reaction is contrite but non-committal
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took part in the commission’s closing ceremony and said “while this is an important milestone in getting our country past the days of Indian residential schools, work is still needed to help heal the pain and restore trust from that wrong.”
However, the federal government has not yet said if it will adopt any of the commission’s recommendations and the prime minister has steered clear of using the phrase “cultural genocide.”
Fully embracing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples might be one sticking point: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. have expressed concern about its potential effect on national sovereignty, land disputes and natural resource extraction.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have each indicated that, if elected, they would implement the declaration.
Poignant gestures mark the call for reconciliation
Outside of official circles, everyday citizens welcomed the report in different ways. In Orillia, people planted a garden as a symbol of reconciliation and new beginnings. At Anglican churches across the country, bells tolled for missing and murdered aboriginal women. On Twitter, people used the hashtag #MyReconciliationIncludes to share what the conclusions of the report meant to them. “#MyReconciliationIncludes mandatory treaty obligation education in Canada’s citizenship process,” read one.
And there were personal gestures of regret — Dave Levac, speaker of the Ontario legislature, became emotional when discussing growing up near a residential school. “To some of those who are now friends of mine: I didn’t know what was going on.” he said. “To them, I say I’m sorry.”
Editorial boards say report’s conclusions cannot be ignored
The Toronto Star argued that it is not only up to governments to make amends with indigenous people and restore trust. “Canadians must demand no less. Collectively and individually we must reach out to bridge the gulfs of understanding that divide us.”
The Globe and Mail took issue with those protesting that “cultural genocide” was too strong a term to describe what happened in the past: “An argument over what to call a wrong that was committed, and how to classify it, is a distraction and a dead end.”
Some voices raise misgivings
Not all openly embraced what the report had to say. For example, CBC reports “One Yellowknifer, who asked not to be identified, said she wanted aboriginal people to ‘get over it.’ She's had a tough life, she elaborated, and said she doesn't receive any special compensation.
On the op-ed pages, the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson expressed concern that the report’s rhetoric is “an encouragement to keep looking backward when what is more urgently needed today is to look forward in forging new relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.” Writing in the National Post, Terry Glavin, said the commission was right to call what happened “cultural genocide” but argued “it would be wise for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to carefully and cautiously consider how to proceed. It has to be about what’s best for all of us.”
Report also gets some attention abroad
The commission’s work made it into the New York Times, which added “a disproportionate number of aboriginal people are imprisoned in Canada, and aboriginal children account for a much larger part of the child welfare system’s caseload than their share of the population.”
For their part, some Australian Aboriginal leaders visiting Alberta this week cautioned indigenous Canadians not to get their hopes up over the report. Adrian Burragubba said Australia’s own inquiry resulted in little. “It didn’t help us,” he said. “We didn’t get anywhere.”
Image credit: Blair Gable/Reuters