Hebert: Real reconciliation can’t be forced

As Opposition leader in the lead-up to the last federal election, Justin Trudeau did not waste a single day to commit to implement the 94 recommendations of the truth and reconciliation commission.

He made the promise mere hours after the commission reported on the damage inflicted on Canada’s Indigenous peoples by the residential school system and the way forward.

Almost four years into the Liberals’ term, Trudeau’s government is still struggling to honour that pledge.

That goes some way to account for the contrast in the reception he gave on Monday to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The prime minister refrained from embracing its 200-plus recommendations, sticking instead to a more general promise to not let the report gather dust.

Most notably, Trudeau steered clear of endorsing the group’s core finding that a planned genocide was the root cause of the violence endured by past and present generations of Indigenous women.

It remains to be seen whether the provocative conclusion that tops the inquiry’s prescriptions will eventually resurface in an official government of Canada statement or in Trudeau’s promised action plan.

Equating the violence Indigenous women have and, in many cases, continue to endure with the interracial mass killings that saw thousands massacred by their compatriots in Rwanda in the late 1990s will not come easily to many Canadians or their elected officials.

Indeed, one of the first to reject the equation on Monday was none other than Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who led a UN force of peacekeepers in Rwanda at the time of that genocide and who continues to suffer mental anguish from having been powerless to prevent it.

The risk here is that the argument over the use of the term “genocide” steals the show from the reforms the report advocates.

No one — least of all the Indigenous women whose future the inquiry is determined to help make brighter — will be advanced by a fight over what to call an undeniably dismal legacy of discrimination.

As the distinct society debate demonstrated at the time of the Canada/Quebec constitutional wars, words often take on a life of their own, to the detriment of the reconciliation they are meant to advance.

The commission sets ambitious goals and the authors of the report insist their prescriptions are a package deal that has to be accepted as a whole by all levels of governments.

In so doing, they may be programming their report to fail.

One only needs to look at the federation’s difficulty in coming to a common federal-provincial approach to climate change and carbon pricing to know that even with the strongest political will, no federal government has it in its power to force the provinces to sing from its hymn book.

The combination of an all-or-nothing approach to the report’s implementation, combined with the implication that anyone not on board with its findings is somewhat complicit in a genocide, was likely designed to induce a greater sense of public urgency. But it could achieve the opposite.

In the ongoing debate over climate change, increasingly dire predictions about the impact of global warming have as often as not overwhelmed large segments of the target audience.

When it comes to achieving reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous peoples, Monday’s report, like the others before it, makes it clear that Canada still has miles to go.

But when it comes to the federal government tasking commissions of inquiry with drafting road maps, this report should probably mark the end of the road.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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