May’s end has brought important reconciliation steps

The Manitoulin Island powwow season begins with the annual first event hosted by Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, nicely bookending Monday’s formal apology in the Ontario legislature by Premier Kathleen Wynne.

This was Ontario’s own response to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated Canada’s treatment of its First Nations citizens, especially when, as children, they attended government-funded residential schools across Canada and often attended by means of coercion.

The premier, echoed by the leaders of the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic Party in opposition, acknowledged the distress these government-assisted schools had brought to bear on successive generations of First Nations citizens and acknowledged the shameful participation of previous Ontario governments.

In his response to Premier Wynne, UOI Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee “welcomed the comments and commitments of the Ontario government to work with indigenous partners to address the legacy of the residential schools by addressing the recommendations of the Truth and Recinciliation Commission.”

Grand Chief Madahbee referred to other studies and reports that have addressed the relationship between Canada’s First Nations governments and this country’s federal and provincial governments, noting that, “most of the recommendations still sit on shelves. I urge everyone to move quickly to action and to work to identify immediate priorities, set critical paths that can advance our issues and take action to implement them. I look forward to the challenge of working together to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.”

For her part, Premier Wynne committed up to $20 million over three years for a variety of projects that were largely symbolic in nature.

But, more importantly, she also committed up to a total of $250 million, also over a three-year period, to help fund hard services such as First Nations schools and cited seeking a collaborative model between the provincially-funded education system and the federal government’s commitments to schools in First Nations communities.

This is indeed an important point for Ms. Wynne to highlight and, hopefully, it will translate into dollars spent in these schools.

At the present time, the per-student funding by the federal government in First Nations schools is slightly more than half of the province’s per student formula for its schools.

There is much more that the province has wedged into this $250 million commitment and it’s not hard to imagine that $83 million per year for a three-year period could easily get eaten up by projects that will reflect well on the current government, as meaningful as they may be.

But $83 million per year is, these days, not all that much money and the priorities the government laid out on Monday are numerous. And in three years’ time, there is no guarantee that the strategies will be renewed or continued.

Considering education in schools their ancestors were forced to attend by way of cultural genocide, the most appropriate use of much of the funds Ontario has committed to by way of its share of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission burden should be directed at improving educational opportunities for current and future generations of First Nation’s youth and also to put in place curricula for the general population of young learners that will lay out the horrors Canada inflicted on its indigenous children in times past.

The formal apology by the province is important and so is the commitment to do a better job of involving First Nations in the future success of this province.

But, at the end of the day, there must be some priorities established that will improve the chances of the youngest First Nations citizens of Ontario taking their rightful place in the sun, unhampered as much as possible by what has gone before.

Powwows such as the one this weekend in AOK must be appropriate venues for the discussion of these priorities.

As it happens, the next powwow this year is Wikwemikong’s traditional event, always scheduled on the weekend closest to National Aboriginal Day, June 21, so this year it will fall on June 18 and 19.

And as it happens, another speaker on Monday in the Ontario legislature, Dr. Dawn (Mimi) Lavell-Harvard, president of both the Ontario and Canadian Native Women’s Associations, is a Wikwemikong band member.

Ms. Lavell-Harvard’s remarks focussed on the role of First Nations women and how “the Truth and Reconciliation Report gives us an opportunity to restore our balance to our communities and nations” and the women’s role in that process.

She added that in the reconciliation process, a place must be made for the re-empowerment of women and the child welfare system must include women, noting that, “our mothers are our first teachers.”

What goes on on Manitoulin Island can very much be a model in terms of education, for ways in which the province can assist other First Nations schools and their communities, especially their young people.

We have heard too much of the deaths of the young people in Thunder Bay; people who have left their remote community to attend high school in the city; too much of the shameful condition of some of the community schools on the James Bay coast.

Now is the time, as Ms. Wynne promised, for Ontario and the government of Canada to begin to cooperate on giving all young people the best start in their early lives as possible and an education equal to what children in non-First Nations communities take for granted.

This must be at the very highest level of the priorities that will determine how the promised funding is spent over the next three years.