OTTAWA — Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report, commissioners Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson are coming together to voice their concerns about the slow pace of reconciliation in Canada.
The commission’s final report provided a detailed account of what happened to Indigenous children who were physically and sexually abused in government boarding schools, where at least 3,200 children died amid abuse and neglect.
The commission also published 94 calls to action urging all levels of government to change policies and programs to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.
The three commissioners held a press conference virtually on Tuesday morning to mark the fifth anniversary of the release of their final report.
Littlechild, a Cree chief and former MP who is a residential school survivor, said he’s encouraged by progress on reconciliation but he is concerned about the pace.
“The pace is what consensus is. We thought, as the commissioners, we would be farther ahead by now after five years,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press Monday.
“It’s kind of an urgent matter now to really refocus on the calls to action.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa that he is also impatient about reconciliation.
“I share the sense of urgency,” he said.
“Certainly (the COVID-19) pandemic has demonstrated yet again just how vulnerable certain Indigenous communities are and how much we need to continue to work even faster on the path of reconciliation.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett also agreed that there is a need to improve the pace on reconciliation.
“We want always to move faster,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
“We will have to continue to be vigilant, to make sure that we make progress, make progress faster,” she said.
Littlechild said there’s a danger of losing gains that have been made by Indigenous people. He said he is also worried about growing racism in Canada.
“One of the (areas) where it’s going backwards, it’s the very open systemic racism and discrimination that’s not only continuing, but escalating.”
Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was later appointed to the Senate, said groups advocating for racism in the United States have felt empowered in the last few years and that spilled over to Canada.
He says these groups are targeting specific issues that are important for reconciliation, including the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Earlier this month, the Liberal government introduced legislation to align federal laws with the United Nations declaration.
“We need to recognize that there is still some resistance on the part of some elements of Canadian society,” Sinclair said in an interview.
He said racist and white-supremacist groups are attempting to deny the validity of the Indigenous story.
“They are feeling empowered and feeling that they have the right to voice their opinions,” he said. “There is a very significant element of resistance that is trying to stir up fears and misunderstandings and misinformation.”
Littlechild said he’s troubled that six provinces oppose the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous-relations ministers from Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick called for the delay of the UNDRIP bill in a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail earlier in December.
“It’s not any more seeking consensus in terms of a non-partisan issue. It’s no longer about the process. It’s now politics,” Littlechild said. “That’s very, very sad and unfortunate.”
He said standing in the way of implementing the UN declaration means standing in the way of reconciliation.
“Indigenous survival, dignity and well-being should be a non-partisan issue,” he says.
The commissioners are also concerned that a National Council for Reconciliation has not been established five years after they called for one.
Sinclair said the lack of this council is leaving the entire conversation about priorities in the hands of the government.
“The government, in some respects, is in a bit of a conflict of interest when it comes to the process of reconciliation and Indigenous rights,” he said. “They control the legislative process that governs the lives of Indigenous people without attempting to give up that control or to acknowledge it. They should no longer be in charge.”
Bennett said her department is in the process of establishing the transition committee to draft legislation that will create the council.
“This is a legislative priority for me,” she said. “I hope that we would be able to get to at least consulting on draft legislation early next year.”
Sinclair said the UN declaration calls upon colonizing states, including Canada, to recognize that they spent a lot of money to take land rights away from Indigenous people, so they have to be willing to spend a lot of money to undo that harm.
“They have to recognize that much of the income that governments have earned over the last number of generations, it’s come from the resources that Indigenous people have a right to claim, still belong to them or still to be shared with them.”
He said First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities face widespread poverty, food insecurity and housing insecurity.
Wilson said the profound inequalities facing Indigenous Peoples have made the risks from COVID-19 much greater.
“This is not an anniversary for celebration. But one for national honesty and urgent, and meaningful action,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2020
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press