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Canada’s Indian Residential School Apology

The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RRCAP) made a number of recommendations to the Government of Canada regarding residential schools. Canada consequently made a Statement of Reconciliation to residential school survivors in 1998 and created the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. In 2003, the Government of Canada launched a Dispute Resolution plan to compensate survivors that fell far short of the expectations of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In response, the Assembly of First Nations, with Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, launched a class action lawsuit in 2005 against the federal government. As a settlement in that case, the Government of Canada signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) in 2006. The event was heralded as the beginning of a new chapter in Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Inuit, Innu and Métis). It was seen as more than an acknowledgement of the truth about atrocities committed against Indigenous children in the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) system. It was seen as the first step towards reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples.

The IRSSA was implemented on September 19, 2007. Included within the IRSSA was schedule “N”, the mandate for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, considered to be the cornerstone of the IRSSA, began its work on June 1, 2008. Overall goals of the TRC focus on promoting healing, educating, listening, and the preparation of a report for all parties that includes recommendations for the Government of Canada regarding the IRS system, experience and legacy. The TRC released an interim report in May of 2015 and a final report in January of 2016. The final report contains 94 calls to action.

In 2007 the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Canada refused to endorse the Declaration. On June 11, 2008, Canada’s Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, publicly apologized to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples for the IRS system, admitting that residential schools were part of a Canadian policy on forced Indigenous assimilation. Prime Minister Harper and the leaders of every major federal political party in Canada publicly decreed there was no place left in Canada for the policy of forced Indigenous assimilation. Later, every province and territory apologized as well. However, it was not until May 2016 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had Canada’s objector status for the Declaration removed from the United Nations.

In August 2017 under a recommendation from RRCAP, Canada split the federal department responsible for Indigenous affairs into two departments. However, there is still no mechanism in place that will result in the change needed to solve problems facing Canada’s native people; problems created by the policy of forced assimilation.

Very little has changed in Canada since Indigenous and Treaty Rights were first recognized in section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act in 1982. The Inuit in Nunavut are still without access to food, Indigenous women are still missing in British Columbia (and across Canada), Indigenous suicide rates and life expectancies have not changed, there are huge gaps in education, health care and wealth distribution between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities, Indigenous people in Canada still live in third world conditions and etc.; and, unfortunately, nothing can change at the moment.

Reconciliation is the act of reconciling where, in this instance, to reconcile is to restore, repair or make good again to achieve a settlement. The TRC’s mandate was about revealing the IRS system for what it was. It was not about restoration. Indigenous people in Canada still need to have their lives restored to achieve settlement. Canada’s Indigenous Peoples need to be given back tools taken from them through which solutions can be built. These tools can be found in traditional Indigenous infrastructures, infrastructures that were destroyed and suppressed by the IRS system and forced assimilation. Canada’s Indigenous Peoples need to have their traditional infrastructures restored and repaired to achieve settlement and permanently solve problems facing their communities. To accomplish this, Canada needs a meaningful consultation process; a process to move forward where First Nation, Inuit and Métis rights are truly equal to the rights of non-Indigenous colonists.

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