Decolonization should be at forefront of government’s relations with Indigenous Peoples

From the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation report, to the request for funds to search for unmarked graves at former residential schools, to the “calls for justice” in the 2019 report on Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, many Indigenous leaders say they’re frustrated and puzzled by the federal government’s slow response.

After six years spent investigating the sad legacy of Canada’s residential-school system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Murray Sinclair, released its final report in 2015. And yet, nearly seven years later, few of its 94 calls to action have been fully implemented.

The schools were operated mostly by the Catholic Church, but administered and funded by the federal government. From the 17th century until the late 1990s, they were part of assimilation efforts to destroy Indigenous cultures and identities, and, in the process, children were often neglected, physically abused — including sexually — and many died.

In November, Sinclair was appointed facilitator of talks between the federal government and Indigenous groups to resolve another outstanding matter on which the two sides disagree: a deal for Indigenous child-welfare compensation.

After the Federal Court ruled that the government had to pay $40,000 each to thousands of First Nations children who were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to residential schools, the government put its appeal of that ruling on hold in October to allow it to reach an out-of-court agreement by year’s end.

One TRC call to action that has been fully implemented is making Sept. 30 a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a holiday to honour those who survived the residential-school system and those who didn’t.

But controversy clouded this first federal holiday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent it vacationing in Tofino, B.C., rather than attending reconciliation events to which he’d been invited. He later apologized.

This followed Ottawa’s response in June to the 231 “calls for justice” in the 2019 report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), including provision of shelters for Indigenous women and girls facing abuse, and of affordable housing and transit. The government’s response, two years after the report was published, was criticized as being too broad and not providing a timeline for action.

 “It really wasn’t an implementation plan for our calls to justice,” said Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into MMIWG, speaking to iPolitics in November. 

Buller, a judge in B.C. and a member of the Mistawasis (Cree) First Nation of Saskatchewan, said it’s important that all cabinet ministers read the final report, then get to work implementing the recommendations and calls for action made by both the TRC and the MMIWG inquiry.

“They have to start working on mapping the human and Indigenous violations that are occurring in Canada,” she said. “We have to get Indigenous kids out of foster care,” and move forward with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which received royal assent in June.

Finally, Buller said, governments need to “decolonize.”

“(Decolonization is) acknowledging Indigenous people, communities, and nations as equal partners at all decision-making tables, as well as acknowledging and pushing self-determination and self-governance,” she said.

The government talks about reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, yet many Indigenous leaders, including Buller, say they don’t know what it really means.

“(Reconciliation) is a word we’re throwing around, and it’s being used in so many different contexts,” she said. “To me, reconciliation is more than apologies. It’s more than recycling existing government funding to time-limited projects; it’s actually doing the hard work and decolonizing.”

Marc Miller became Canada’s new Crown-Indigenous Relations minister in October.  Shortly after the cabinet swearing-in ceremony, he told reporters: “The relationship (with Indigenous Peoples) has been broken because of land theft, and it’s time to give land back.” He promised to restore trust and advance recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Buller says she’s “guardedly optimistic” 2022 will bring progress for Indigenous Peoples, especially since the demand for change isn’t being made only by Indigenous leaders and the grassroots; it’s also coming from non-Indigenous allies who aren’t happy with the way things are.

“This is not the Canada I signed on for,” Buller said. “Things need to change, (and this) gives me hope.”

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