We’re on the road to reconciliation

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For the first time in my lifetime, all Canadians have become engaged. We have not found all the answers, but we are asking the right questions.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 4, 2021.

Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation posed more questions than answers.

A court-upheld Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision to compensate Indigenous children taken into care was the subject of much reflection.

The decision puts the government on the hook to compensate Indigenous children living on “reserves” who were taken into care for the last 15 years.

During the election, the Liberals appealed the decision and at press time, it was unclear whether that might happen again.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the government was reviewing the judgment before deciding on whether another appeal would be launched.

But to those Canadians who embrace the need for reconciliation, including leaders in the Indigenous community, a possible appeal soured the significance of the day of Truth and Reconciliation.

As children’s shoes were strewn across the lawn of Parliament, the reflection of little feet stood in stark contrast to jackboots of oppression that those children have felt over the centuries.

The more we learn about the horrendous deculturalization of residential schools, the more that Canadians would like to be able to make amends for a horrible historical legacy.

But the racism and discrimination identified by the Canadian Human Rights Commission did not end last week.

The first-year anniversary of Joyce Echaquan’s death coincided with a call to recognize racism in public sector services in Quebec. The mother of seven, while on her deathbed in a Joliette hospital, was called stupid, and the author of her own problems, by staff caught on a recording.

One employee was ultimately fired but Quebec’s premier Francois Legault continues to deny the existence of systemic racism in his province even though a provincial commission report has already found it “impossible to deny …systemic discrimination” when it comes to Indigenous people.

One day of the year will not change the systemic discrimination that has existed since the beginning of Canada.

But it is fair to say that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the first leader who has actually engaged in a real reconciliation conversation.

For the first time in my lifetime, all Canadians have become engaged. We have not found all the answers, but we are asking the right questions.

The first time I visited an Indigenous community was the Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s most populous First Nation, just 30 kilometres south of the place where I was born.

My parents took me for a visit when I was about eight or nine years old. We attended a community celebration.

To this day, I vividly remembering watching the drummers and the dancers in a cultural celebration that was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Over the years, we visited again, and I was always struck with how different this world was, and how little we even knew about it.

I wondered why the history books in my school in Hamilton made no mention of the people who had populated our lands long before the arrival of the first Europeans.

We knew a little bit about Pauline Johnson, because of her poetry and Tom Longboat because of his athletic achievements, but for the most part, our understanding of Indigenous peoples was net zero.

How many Canadians know that the people of Six Nations helped us when the Americans were trying to take the country over. Every child was educated about the battle of Stoney Creek, a turning point in the battle for Upper Canada.

But not a single history book explored the Haldimand Proclamation, a 1784 decree that promised a tract of 950,000 acres in recognition of Six Nations loyalty and assistance to the British during the American Revolution. Only half that land was ever awarded.

In modern times, disputes arising from this agreement are covered as Indigenous protests. In reality they are only seeking what was promised in multiple settler agreements.

So many promises have been broken, it is understandable that Indigenous leaders view the current government plans with skepticism.

It is also true that while reconciliation preoccupies many Canadians, it was certainly not the top-of-mind subject in the last federal election.

Last week’s national day gives all of us a chance to engage in a deeper reflection.

From the sixties scoops to the shame of residential schools, to the appropriation of Indigenous lands by developers and governments, Canada has a sorry history to atone for.

When pundits reflect on Justin Trudeau’s potential legacy, they don’t need to look far.

Without Trudeau, this journey toward Truth and Reconciliation would never have begun.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.