Recommendations focus on improved health and economy for First Nations , educational thrust for all Canadians

OTTAWA—The historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission ( TRC ) Report delivered it’s preliminary executive summary (a condensed report on Canada’s residential school system that runs to over 360 pages) into the hands of the Canadian government last Tuesday, June 2.

The handover was conducted during a ceremony in Ottawa that marks the end of a six-year odyssey into some of the darkest moments of Canadian history but as the report itself indicates, the findings, even when its full six volumes covering the evidence and testimony of more than 6,000 witnesses has been translated into six different aboriginal languages has been delivered, will only mark the beginning of a rapprochement between Canada and the First Nations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge. The report, and Justice Sinclair, have referred to the residential school era as a period in which the Canadian government, aided and abetted by many of the nation’s mainstream churches, attempted a “cultural genocide.” That term has set off a storm of protest amongst right wing columnists and media pundits—but even a cursory perusal of the vast mountain of evidence contained within historical documents that predate the TRC Commission in an age where no shame accrued to racist hubris largely substantiates that characterization.

The report makes it clear that the government and churches of the nation were not the sole miscreants of the residential school era, but were reflective of systemic and pervasive racism and bigotry whose echoes reverberate to the present day.

“Many of our elements, many of our recommendations and many of the calls to action are actually aimed at Canadian society,” noted Justice Sinclair.

“First and foremost, the report will allow for healing and closure for some,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Pat Madahbee. “The question then becomes, ‘how do we move forward to create a new framework for the relationship between Canada and our people’.”

Chief Madahbee said that the current federal government seems to be content to ignore the issues and recommendations of the report. “They scrapped the Kelowna Accord and have shot down anything that might address the issues.” Chief Madahbee said that “hopefully, there will be a new government in Ottawa in the fall.”

The prime minister’s 2007 apology for the residential school system was just the mouthing of meaningless words without action to address the underlying societal causes that led to its creation, he noted.

“To me, it was just a photo op,” said Anishinabek Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare of the handover ceremony. “We have had many photo ops. There is a prime minister in office who could take, one, two, five of those recommendations in the report and say ‘let’s move forward to do something about these,’ but he is not saying that. He is not saying anything, just posing for the cameras because the world is watching.”

“After so many years, we are still struggling with the same issues,” said Chief Hare. “There has been hardly any change at all.”

“Too many children are suffering from chronic underfunding in education, from a lack of access to quality health care, from a lack of access to safe drinking water and from a lack of access to housing,” said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes in a press release. “In 2015, it is high time to end this cycle of poverty, starting today.”

In her release, Ms. Hughes said the government needs to close the gap for access to health care that stands in the way of recovery for many residential school survivors.

“The survivors still suffer the effects of a stolen childhood,” said Ms. Hughes. “They suffer from health problems that also affect their families. They need help and support.”

The TRC recommendations come shortly after an Auditor General’s report found health care services on many remote and northern First Nations sub-standard.

Ms. Hughes said that she found it incredible that the Minister of Indian Affairs chose to sit down in his chair while the rest of the room stood in ovation following Justice Sinclair’s call for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“Without justice for these women and their families, there can be no reconciliation,” said Ms. Hughes in her release. “Will the minister do the right thing and commit to immediately launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women?”

Social worker Darren Madahbee deals with the fallout from the residential school system every day in his work and he said there was a strong consensus, even unanimity, amongst those in his profession dealing with aboriginal addictions and mental health. “When it comes to actual social services, we are all on board for getting the information out,” he said. “Misinformation (in both the broader society and within First Nations community, especially youth) has been much of the cause of the social ills facing Anishinaabe communities.”

Mr. Madahbee said that much of those ills can be traced to a loss of identity, the very thing the residential school system was designed to inflict upon indigenous peoples. “That is the lingering impact of the residential schools,” he said. “A lot of Anishinaabe don’t have any idea of what their true identity is. They know their Christian names, but they are in a crisis of identity.”

“I see the impact in many of the youth I work with,” he said. “Many of them are ashamed of being Anishinaabe.” Those youth have taken the image of the Native population as drunks, bums and drug addict layabouts into their souls. It is an image foisted upon them by society and reinforced by seeing that image played out in their communities.

“People have tried to tell their stories before,” said Mr. Madahbee. “They have pleaded for people to listen, but those pleas always fell upon deaf ears. It is any wonder that they turned to alcohol and drugs to bury their frustration?”

“Once young Anishinaabe discover what it really means to be a warrior, not only the muscles and brawn,” he said, “but the role of provider to their families and the community, the idea of stewardship over the land to preserve it for the next seven generations, then will come the beginning of a lot of healing.”

For Mr. Madahbee, education is the key, and that includes education of both Natives and non-Natives. “The true history needs to be taught in the school systems, it needs to be taught in the police colleges and in every program that trains social service workers.”

Mr. Madahbee maintains that too often in the past, well meaning social service workers have used a faulty paradigm to attempt to assist Anishinabe in crisis. “They focus on the mental and the physical,” he said. “There is also a need to address the spiritual and the emotional. The four aspects approach is a better way of doing things.”

There are 94 policy recommendations in the report, touching on education, justice and health.

Among the key recommendations are: health, an acknowledgement that the current state of aboriginal health is a direct result of previous government policies and the implementation of health-care rights for aboriginal people; education including the creation and funding for new aboriginal education legislation; one that protects languages and cultures and closes the education gap for aboriginal people; justice, including a commitment to eliminate the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in custody and in trouble with the law. (This includes a recommendation to collect and publicize data on criminal victimization of aboriginal people.) The creation of a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls; the creation of a national council for reconciliation, which would monitor and report on reconciliation progress, as well as the introduction of an annual State of Aboriginal Peoples report delivered by the prime minister; implemention by the government of an Aboriginal Languages Act and the appointment of a language commissioner in order to preserve and promote indigenous languages; the report calls for $10 million over seven years from the federal government for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; the creation of a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families and communities that will help to ensure “public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”; the report asks for funding for memorials, community events and museums, including a museum reconciliation commemoration program, to be launched in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.

“What we have said to government leaders is that education is what got us into this mess, the use of education, at least, in terms of residential schools,” Justice Sinclair said on the eve of the report’s release. “But education is the key to reconciliation, because we need to look at the way we are educating children.

“Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program: it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide,” the TRC’s summary report states.

In a tremendously disturbing revelation, Justice Sinclair pointed out that the TRC has documented the deaths of over 6,000 residential school students as a result of their school experience, adding that there are probably more. The odds of a student dying in a Canadian residential school during their years of operation was about the same as that of those serving in Canada’s armed forces during the Second World War.

“It took a long time for that damage to have been done and for the relationship we (now) see to have been created, and it will take us a long time to fix it,” reads the report. “But the process has already begun,” the commission added. First Nation leaders and those working on the front lines of dealing with the generational aftermath of the residential school system remain sceptical.

In the words of the late Whitefish River First Nation elder Violet McGregor following the historic apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007: “It is all just mouthing empty words, unless something actually gets done.”