BY CHANDRAKANT SHAH
‘It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.’ – Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, House of Commons, 1883 justifying the Residential School System, which would see generations of Indigenous children, removed from their families. In 2015, Justice Murray Sinclair (now Retired Senator Sinclair) published a report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC).
The report received wide publicity and stirred the collective consciousness of non- Indigenous Canadians. Many of the report’s recommendations (Calls to Action) were geared towards our education, health, welfare and legal institutions run by various governments, few were directed to us – nonindigenous Canadians.
While the governments of Canada, territories, provinces and municipalities and health and educational institutions have committed to act upon them, after six years, there are quite a few that remain unfulfilled.
The recent uncovering of a large number of unmarked graves on the ground of residential schools has provided further impetus to act upon those recommendations.
This year, the Canadian Parliament passed the legislation designating Sep. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, commemorating the legacy of residential schools as recommended made by the TRCC (Act 80).
In the spirit of recommendation, it is the day not only to reflect and learn about our unpleasant past but make sincere attempts to reconcile by our individual and collective actions. In my humble opinion, many recent and established settlers (Canadians), have little knowledge of what it means to “sign the treaty with Indigenous Peoples.” Treaties are signed between the nation-states, both sides honour the agreements made and are in perpetuity unless renegotiated.
Often, I hear from Canadians of all walks of lives, that those treaties signed in the past are irrelevant today. These individuals need to understand that whether they like it or not, they are part of the signatories to the treaties; and they are “treaty people.”
For example, we have signed many treaties with the U.S., including the Extradition treaty, under which we were required to hold Meng Wanzhou, an executive of Huawei Technology from the Republic of China even though some of us disapproved it; many thought it to be a political ploy by a previous U.S. president. As a result, our two citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were jailed.
However, our government stood firm and adhered to our agreement; we did not break the treaty to free our citizens. The British Crown had first signed the treaty with Indigenous Peoples in Canada in 1701.
Even today, there are several outstanding treaties and ongoing negotiations and few “unceded territories”; where Indigenous nations have not given up their sovereignty. So we should not kid ourselves, ‘we all are treaty people’ and need to fulfil our treaty obligations.
Over the past 150 years, we have not reneged those treaty obligations we had agreed upon, broke the promises we made and ignored them. Commissions and many reports after reports on Indigenous Peoples have shone a light on our mistreatments toward them, but we still fail to acknowledge them.
Truth and Reconciliation Day is time to reflect, time to reconcile, time to learn and confront our past, and time to charter the intended course for the future we, “all treaty people.”
On a positive note, I also heard many times from individual citizens from all walks of lives, who would like to be engaged in transforming our relationship with Indigenous Peoples. How does one proceed at an individual level? From my experience over the past fifty years, here is my advice. Do:
Learn and understand the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the impact of colonialism – Read the Report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see www.trc.ca), take a cultural competency course and/or read one of the many books on the subject by both the Indigenous and non-indigenous scholars.
In future, vote for representatives who support reconciliation and action – – Ask parties and candidates about their policies on Indigenous issues and vote for the ones who support and address Justice Sinclair’s Report.
Advocate and support Indigenous-led causes. You can lend your support to Indigenous peoples for various issues e.g., housing in First Nations, clean drinking water, employment equity, cultural revival, murdered and missing women, child welfare, education system, restorative justice for Aboriginal inmates etc.
There are many local, provincial and national Indigenous organizations, like the Peel Indigenous Network and Anishinaabe Health Foundation, involved in providing services, fundraising, policy formulation and advocacy. Give them support, lend your hand and/or join in peaceful protest!
As mentioned above, be informed and respectful of Treaties. Learn about the Treaties where you live. Learn about the importance of Land Acknowledgement and why and how to do it.
Become friends with Indigenous people. Invite them in your home, attend cultural events, and visit Friendship Centres like the Peel Aboriginal Network and Native Cultural Centre of Toronto.
Examine your unconscious biases and work to change them for you and your family. Do not:
Prescribe solutions to Indigenous problems; they have had enough of other people providing solutions over the last 500 years that have caused more problems.
Pity Indigenous peoples. They do not need it! Empathy and understanding are needed.
Get involved with Indigenous issues out of compassion, as it, like infatuation, wears off in a short time. Over the centuries, Aboriginal People have had experience with many “do-gooders” who have imposed their value systems. Make sure you can sustain your commitment to working together.
Be a Performative Ally, meaning your acts are purely for your benefits to increase your profiles and receive kudos from others.
Stereotype Indigenous peoples. Similar to other communities, there are excellent and renowned people such as architects, painters, lawyers, writers, physicians, and Governor-General. Indigenous peoples and all Canadians are part of the larger Canadian family.
To make sure that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not in vain, we need to understand, empathize, reach out, provide a helping hand and undo many injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples. As Mr. Justice Sinclair in his report said: “…..reconciliation is not an indigenous problem, it is for all of Canada.” Let us rise to the challenge!