Last month, the Assembly of First Nations, a political body representing First Nations across Canada, released its election priorities in a report called the Healing Path Forward. It identifies a number of commitments the AFN would like to see federal parties make: to addressing the collective trauma surrounding the identification of unmarked burial sites at former residential schools, to investing in First Nations economies, to recognizing Indigenous rights, and more.
TVO.org speaks with National Chief RoseAnne Archibald about moving away from the Indian Act, giving land back to First Nations, and what the AFN would like to see from the next federal government.
TVO.org: I just wanted to start by asking you how you’re settling into your new role as national chief?
Archibald: It’s going well. It’s really busy. I didn’t anticipate an election being called so soon. But, you know, it’s been good. It’s been a good transition. So far, so good.
TVO.org: As you know, thousands of burial sites have been identified on former residential school grounds across the country, and these investigations are ongoing. What are your thoughts on the government’s actions so far, and what should the next government do to continue this work?
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Archibald: This is why we named our document the Healing Path Forward, because we are in a unique time in Canada with the recovery of our little ones from these unmarked graves. And I think the difficult thing for non-Indigenous people is coming to terms with the truth and the loss of their myth of how Canada was formed.
With this recovery of our little children, it’s very clear that genocide did happen in Canada and that these were not schools. These were institutions of assimilation and genocide, and everybody is grappling with that. Particularly non-Indigenous people. We always knew, of course — First Nations always knew. I think that, when I talk about the healing path forward, I’m talking about finding this way to heal all of us. Part of that is creating proper memorials for our children, creating better education processes so that Canadians can learn about their true history, our true shared history.
We need to invest in healing, particularly with First Nations survivors and intergenerational survivors. They used to have, at the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, what was called the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and it really created opportunities for survivors to create healing projects or participate in healing processes, whether that was a ceremony, healing ceremonies, counseling, workshops, those kinds of things. That process lapsed … and new funding didn’t come forward for it. But I really believe that we need some kind of Indigenous-healing fund to look at some of the fallout around these institutions, particularly with intergenerational survivors.
Because when you’re robbed of your childhood, and you’re not connected to your parents, which many of the survivors — all of the survivors — went through, you lose that connection around parenting and family. Those things have to be rebuilt with each generation. So we’ve got to find a way to heal that and have families become healthy and strong again and reach our vision of happy, healthy children surrounded by love and care of their families in safe and vibrant communities. That’s what we want. Everybody wants that across this country. And I really believe that an Indigenous-healing fund is one mechanism to contribute to that healing.
I also know that non-Indigenous Canadians need to heal. They also need to grapple with and come to terms with the true history of this country and make sure that we’re creating a society, and a country, where this thing never happens again.
The problem we’re having right now is that it is still happening. Our children are bearing the brunt of all of these colonial policies that exist, and certainly our children are being apprehended by these child-welfare systems at higher rates than at the height of residential schools. There’s still an impact being felt by these institutions in our community, and our children are really the ones who are suffering in this process today. And Indigenous women also have higher rates of going missing and being murdered. That’s another form of genocide. That’s what the MMIWG report spoke to, that that is a form of genocide. That that is genocide. And, so, there are these ongoing processes that we have to heal and fix to create the kind of society and country that we all want to live in, where there is equality and equity between First Nations and regular, everyday Canadians who enjoy clean drinking water and safe housing. There’s just such a disparity there that we have to fix.
TVO.org: Earlier this year, the Liberals released an action plan intended to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It includes 231 Calls for Justice. In their platforms, the NDP, the Liberals, and the Green party make commitments to implement them; the Conservative platform makes no reference to them. What do you think about the progress that has been made so far, and what should the next government be doing to address this issue?
Archibald: Well, progress has been slow. But I do want to commend the Liberal government for fulfilling that promise that they would have an inquiry. That was a promise in a previous election, and I think they need to be recognized for fulfilling that part of it.
The other issue, around implementing the 231 calls, is it has been very slow. It’s had setbacks. What I would like to see is the next government begin to accelerate those Calls for Justice that are in the MMIWG report. And, certainly, they have a willing partner in the Assembly of First Nations to work on that process and make sure that that women are safe, that Indigenous, First Nations women are loved, cared for, respected, and treated with dignity always. We want to work with whatever government is in place. The fact that the Conservatives haven’t listed it at all in their platform is, I think, very concerning. It’s disappointing that they haven’t listed that as a major item that they would undertake to continue to work on.
TVO.org: What do you think about the Liberals appointing a non-Indigenous man as the executive director of the MMIWG Secretariat?
Archibald: A mistake that they must correct.
TVO.org: During last week’s English-language debate, APTN reporter Melissa Ridgen asked candidates how they would dismantle the Indian Act. Only the Liberals and the Green party’s platforms mention transitioning away from the Indian Act through Indigenous-led processes. Is moving away from the Indian Act a priority for the AFN? What does that look like?
Archibald: Yeah, it is. It always has been a priority, and it’s an ongoing struggle. The fact that it’s not mentioned in the document doesn’t mean that it’s something that we’re not continually working towards. What we wanted to do with this document was keep it to a high-level number of priorities.
But dismantling the Indian Act and having First Nations inherent and treaty rights recognized and implemented and respected is ongoing work. It’s something that is touched on in that part of the document where we talk about peace through the recognition of First Nations sovereignty and jurisdiction, because the Indian Act doesn’t recognize those things. It’s definitely an ongoing priority to get that racist, paternalistic, colonial piece of legislation out the door and replaced with true recognition of First Nations sovereignty and jurisdiction.
TVO.org: The Healing Path Forward document seems to make a nod to the Land Back movement by asking for Crown lands to be returned to First Nations “as part of reparations for First Nations.” How could something like that be accomplished? Are there any mechanisms currently in place that allow for land to be returned to Indigenous people?
Archibald: Well land back isn’t just about the return of land, like physically … I want to be clear about that. It’s really about First Nations being able to benefit from the land that the Creator placed us on. We have Creator-given rights. We were placed on these lands by the Creator, and we have sacred responsibilities to those lands and waters and animals and all the resources.
Land back is really about making sure that First Nations are managing and upholding their responsibilities to the land and benefitting from the land, because that’s what treaties were about and are about: to have mutual benefit, to share the resources with the newcomers and settlers, to make sure that their lives would be filled with peace and friendship, which is what those first treaties were about as well.
So the mechanism does exist. Of course it does. But are governments willing to do that today? Maybe not. But we have to start discussing it and moving toward it in some manner, because this is one of the great injustices in our shared history. First Nations have been placed here on Turtle Island, of which Canada is a part, and there’s such vast, enormous wealth that’s being taken from our lands and resources. Everybody is able to come to this country and build wealth and prosperity, but the people who have the God-given rights to this land. They are often living in conditions that are not equitable and not equal to everybody else. I think that’s a big part of what land back is about, as well as creating that sense of equality and equity and prosperity and making sure that First Nations benefit from their land.
TVO.org: Finally, the AFN’s internal polling suggests that more Canadians are supportive of First Nations priorities than ever before. I’m wondering what factors you think have contributed to this increase in support ?
Well, it’s been a journey. I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work was probably the beginning of a wider understanding of what has happened in Canada. And, certainly, when our children, they’ve been recovered and are being recovered from these former institutions of assimilation and genocide — I don’t call them schools anymore, because no school that I ever went to had a graveyard or buried children in them — I think that that’s really helped to understand that our children were innocent and have been the victims of genocide. I think it really created a lot of empathy and understanding on the part of non-Indigenous people, because they love their children, too. We all love our children, and we all want our children to be safe and happy. And when that came to light, it really woke everybody up to the truth.
I’ve always said there has to be truth before reconciliation. I’m not the first person to say that, but that is where we are. Now we have to face the truth, and then we have to look at how do we reconcile — and how do we come back together and create a more just, and equal and equitable society for everyone.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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