THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES
OTTAWA, Wednesday, February 14, 2018
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met this day at 6:45 p.m. to study the new relationship between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
Senator Lillian Eva Dyck (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good evening, tansi. I would like to welcome all honourable senators and members of the public who are watching this meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples either here in the room or listening via the Web.
I would like to acknowledge, for the sake of reconciliation, that we are meeting on the traditional, unceded lands of the Algonquin peoples.
My name is Lillian Dyck. I am the chair of this committee, and I’m from Saskatchewan.
Tonight we continue our study on what a new relationship between the government and First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples in Canada could look like. Today we are especially honoured to hear from two of the commissioners from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr. Marie Wilson and Senator Murray Sinclair. You have the floor and, following that, we will have questions.
I forgot to introduce my fellow senators. We’ll start with the deputy chair.
Senator Tannas: Scott Tannas from Alberta.
Senator Doyle: Norman Doyle, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Senator Ngo: Senator Ngo from Ontario.
Senator McCallum: Mary Jane McCallum, Manitoba.
Senator Brazeau: Patrick Brazeau from Quebec
Senator Christmas: Dan Christmas, Nova Scotia.
Senator Pate: Kim Pate, Ontario.
Senator McPhedran: Marilou McPhedran, Manitoba.
The Chair: Thank you, senators.
Hon. Murray Sinclair, Former Chair, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, as an individual: Thank you very much, senators. You will be pleased and surprised to hear that actually I’m not going to read a speech or talk to you very long. My intention is to be here to answer questions.
Commissioner Wilson, though, has a written submission that we have cooperated and collaborated on that I would like her to present to you. I’ll ask Commissioner Wilson if she will do the presentation for us.
The Chair: Thank you.
Marie Wilson, Former Commissioner, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, as an individual: Thank you, Senator Dyck. We acknowledge as well your land recognition and thank you for that. We also acknowledge the solemnity of this forum and each of your respective positions. I would also like to recognize the presence here of many of the former staff of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who appear to have our back, and we’re very honoured they came out tonight as well.
I do have some written notes because we would like, among other things, some of the segments of our own report to become part of your own permanent record. With your permission, we’ll begin by reading those before we open up to our conversation.
As we all know, this is Valentine’s Day, but this is not a love story. I’m sitting before you today in the high hopes that it may yet become one.
When I first heard about your special Senate study on the new relationship between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and was invited to make a presentation to it, I must admit to you that I felt angry and frustrated. I telephoned my former colleague, now Senator Sinclair, to say so. He agreed and we agreed that if given a chance, we would tell you that. After all, when you first announced this special study, we as commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had only recently, in December 2015, released our own report. It was the largest substantive consultation of indigenous people on any subject in the history of our country, Canada’s 130-year history of forced residential schooling for indigenous children. We based our 10-volume findings on almost 300 days of public hearings in every region of the country, from coast to coast to coast. We based our findings on dozens of commissioned research reports, together with an exhaustive reference of hundreds of documented sources.
Most compellingly and most centrally, we based our findings on almost 7,000 recorded statements from former students who spent their childhoods in the more than 150 church-run, government-sponsored institutions known as residential schools. They were isolated from traditional lands and cultural groundings and deprived of kinship ties and parental devotion, protection and love.
With the announcement of your study, here we were, it seemed to me, right back into the cycle of responding to major reports with a call for more study — study billed as action. It is a cycle so well-known in indigenous circles that it has become a bad joke. In the urgency of current realities, any appetite or patience for more studies wears thin, yet here we are today.
That said, we are also encouraged by the fact that the request for more information and dialogue about our TRC work has not yet let up in the two years since we reported. It’s also important to note that the purpose of such dialogue has become more focused. Increasingly, the question has become, “What specifically can we do?”
Today we are presuming that question is also at the back of your own minds as members of the Senate of Canada. What specifically can you do?
My first response to that question is always the same. I should say our first response, because I know we all say it. If you have not already done so, read the 94 calls to action of the TRC, and read at least the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which informs where each of those TRC calls to action comes from.
In that summary report, called Honouring the Past: Reconciling for the Future, you will find these introductory words:
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”
Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. . . . families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.
As you have been reminded from these excerpts, the story of the history and legacy of residential schools and what unfolded within them has a lot to do with state-sponsored policies and laws, the making of laws, the imposition of laws, the breaking of laws and the failure to honour laws — laws that were foundational to the very creation of Canada itself, those claiming to bind indigenous peoples and European newcomers together in respectful relationship for mutual benefit, nation to nation.
You, as senators, as part of the legislative arm of the Government of Canada, are today’s lawmakers. The challenges of today, fomented by all those historic breaches, are described in great detail in our report, together with our conclusions about who needs to take action, in what areas, including legislative action. As lawmakers, as policy influencers and advisors, those challenges lie before you now. How shall you respond?
In reviewing our TRC’s 94 calls to action, you will see that they are divided into two sections. Calls number 1 to 42 are in the section we call “Addressing the Legacy.” I sometimes refer to these as the “cleaning up the mess calls to action,” the mess created by past and continuing policies and practices. This legacy section includes the areas of child welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice. We put these things first because these are the areas where urgent practical issues reside. These are the areas where a continued lack of attention and lack of regard will ensure the repetition of every negative statistic we say we want to end; those things that are a stain on the reality and reputation of Canada, from child apprehension to school dropout rates, infant mortality to poverty, addictions to incarceration, suicide, murdered and missing, all these things affecting indigenous people in dramatically disproportionate numbers.
The second section of calls to action, numbers 43 to 94, we call “Towards Reconciliation.”
But well beyond your further familiarization with our TRC conclusions, we believe in your specific role as senators there are a number of things you can do in support of the spirit of reconciliation and the specifics of change. Hold the government to account on its own pledge. In Ottawa, in December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:
No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Our Government is working together with Indigenous Peoples to build a nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, government-to-government relationship – one based on respect, partnership, and recognition of rights.
But know also that it isn’t just the sitting Prime Minister who has made promises. Every national political party issued their own historic apology for the residential school saga in the House of Commons. And in those apologies, they each included their own promises to right the wrongs of the past. By their own official words, each party has acknowledged that reconciliation belongs to all Canadians. It is not a partisan issue.
So bring your support to the actions, legislative and otherwise, that aim to keep those promises, no matter which party they may come from, now or in the future. Support and enrich draft legislation that comes to you in the spirit of reconciliation, and in response to the specific calls to action of the TRC, rather than blocking, denying, delaying.
The so-called spanking law, regarding section 43 of the Criminal Code, is such an example. Let me just tell you that there were no limits to the so-called “spanking” we heard about in the context of residential schools. One that stands out in my mind involves skipping ropes tied in knots, delivering whippings, which were then called a “spanking.” It was legally sanctioned. Surely we can quickly change such a destructive, dusty old law.
Other examples that will come before you and are also named in our TRC calls to action include legislation to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Call to Action 43, and legislation regarding the recognition, preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages, found in Calls to Action 13 to 15, and legislation that responds to Calls to Action 53 to 56, relating to the establishment of a national council for reconciliation.
Each of these legislative proposals will have been grounded in extensive and unprecedented input from indigenous voices and agencies. Honour and respect their underlying indigenous expertise.
Don’t allow yourselves to be the spoilers of such transformative initiatives and the new laws that define a new kind of Canada that can result from them. Play a bold and unhesitating role in rescinding any legislation that is based on outdated, racist notions of indigenous peoples.
As we know, laws — individual and in combination — determine the programs and the distribution of resources in this country, how we share the great wealth of Canada. Infuse the politics of such decisions with a Senate oversight of heart and generosity, knowing that poverty is one of the most glaring and devastating forms of societal violence.
As senators, you are a community of highly accomplished and highly influential individuals. You hold positions enriched with resources and access to information. You have ways of knowing more about all of this than most Canadians do. Use your influence to share the wealth of your knowledge with others in your fields of endeavour. Speak up and help shatter the stereotypes and half-truths that have hidden our country from its true self and that have blocked our country from its best self. Talk to family members, especially your children and your grandchildren, and be forever mindful of just how fortunate you are to have been able to raise them yourselves in your own homes, when so many indigenous parents did not and still do not.
As you tackle these things, we encourage you to let your deliberations and your actions be grounded in the Principles of Reconciliation, which we have also described in our TRC reports and specifically in the volume we refer to as “What We Have Learned.”
Principle 1: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.
2: First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, as the original peoples of this country and as self-determining peoples, have treaty, constitutional and human rights that must be recognized and respected.
3: Reconciliation is a process of healing relationships that requires public truth sharing, apology and commemoration that acknowledge and redress past harms.
4: Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health, child welfare, administration of justice, and economic opportunity and prosperity.
5: Reconciliation must create a more equitable and inclusive society by closing the gaps in social, health and economic outcomes that exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
6: All Canadians, as treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.
7: The perspectives and understandings of Aboriginal elders and traditional knowledge keepers of the ethics, concepts and practices of reconciliation are vital to long-term reconciliation.
8: Supporting Aboriginal peoples’ cultural revitalization and integrating indigenous knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, protocols and connections to the land into the reconciliation process are essential.
9: Reconciliation requires political will, joint leadership, trust building, accountability and transparency, as well as a substantial investment of resources.
10: Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, treaties and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canadian society.
To summarize the spirit of these 10 principles, let me again cite from the introduction of our TRC summary report:
A reconciliation framework is one in which Canada’s political and legal systems, educational and religious institutions, the corporate sector and civil society function in ways that are consistent with the principles set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has endorsed.
And, as you know and as we have noted, is in the process of recognizing in legislation.
Together, Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives — within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces. To do so constructively, Canadians must remain committed to the ongoing work of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships . . . .
For governments, building a respectful relationship involves dismantling a centuries-old political and bureaucratic culture in which, all too often, policies and programs are still based on failed notions of assimilation . . . .
For Canadians from all walks of life, reconciliation offers a new way of living together . . . .
. . . to know Canada’s honest history, including what happened in the residential schools, and to appreciate the rich history and knowledge of indigenous nations who continue to make such a strong contribution to Canada, including our very name and collective identity as a country.
Such work is hard work. It requires deep humility and boundless courage, and we want to encourage you in it. In the words of the revered poet Maya Angelou:
Without courage we can’t practise any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.
In preparing for this evening, I have been struck by three forces that bookmark the timing of our presentation today. The first is a very positive one. I have just returned from Finland, where an international seminar was convened to consider possibilities for a truth and reconciliation commission in that country to address issues between the state and the indigenous Sami people. Our TRC voice was invited to present to that gathering because the world has been watching Canada, has been encouraged by the work of our commission here, has been impressed by the political response and commitment to act, and has perceived that something very important and positive has happened in this country.
These are very early days. The question in my mind, and for all of us to consider, is whether we would still be invited back 10 years from now. What would we have to report? What hard evidence might we have to offer that our TRC calls to action have indeed been implemented, that measurable improvements do exist for the indigenous peoples of the land, and that respectful relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples and governments are becoming normalized? I wonder.
The second force that shares a timeline with this presentation is a depleting one. By that, I mean the jury decision of “not guilty of any charges” related to the death of a young man in Saskatchewan. By now, we all know the names. I am not talking about what actually happened leading up to that death or any of the legal facts or arguments. I am talking about the fact of an all-White jury deciding on the fate of an indigenous man.
I remember a remark from the early days of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that remark was, “This is the time in our history that will be Canada’s civil rights movement.” Yet, ever since that jury decision, and as a non-indigenous person myself, I’ve been asking myself why, in 2018, in Canada, it should look like the 1950s in the United States.
The third force surrounding us all this day I’ll call bittersweet: Have a Heart Day, and by that I don’t mean Valentine’s. I’m talking about the gathering that will take place on Parliament Hill tomorrow morning, now several years strong as an established annual event. It will be a gathering of schoolchildren, advocating for fair and equitable resources for indigenous children in this country, in the educational system, the child welfare system and the health system.
I call it bittersweet. They feel a need to gather to speak up on behalf of other kids facing systemic discrimination, and that part is depressing on its own. But it is also hopeful, because these brave children are willing and determined to show up and to speak up. And in the process, they are grooming themselves as leaders who believe that reconciliation is a normal and ethical expectation of our country — not a theoretical notion but a practical, urgent set of actions.
If we believe in service to others in the way my parents taught me and demonstrated in their own lives, and in the ways you have all pledged in your oaths of office, we are all here, each in our various roles, out of regard for the well-being of our children as the next generation inheritors of our country.
I want to end these opening remarks with a short story about my youngest granddaughter. I got to watch her recently as her dance class had a demonstration for family members. But her regular teacher was sick, and the replacement spent some time bonding with the kids by asking them two questions: What was their favourite colour, and what was their favourite animal? I was not at all surprised, in this circle of little girls, to hear repeated mention of the colour pink, but I was a little thrown to hear my own granddaughter say that her favourite animal was the unicorn. She is, after all, nine years old. On the way home, I said to her, “Sadeya, you do know that unicorns are not real animals, don’t you?” and she said, “Mimi, of course I do, but I like to believe in my own imagination.”
I’ve been thinking about that unicorn and her words ever since — thinking that this is what ongoing reconciliation requires of us as individuals and as a country, including you as senators: imagining what is possible for a respectful nation-to-nation relationship in this country, far beyond anything we have ever yet seen. It is holding on to that belief in our imagination, speaking up for it and dancing toward it, no matter how many detractors, naysayers or cynics, whether in our midst or elsewhere in our shared country, no matter how many may say it is unrealistic and that it cannot exist simply because we have never seen it before.
May we all believe in our own imagination of the country we may yet become.
We welcome your questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Dr. Wilson. We’ll now start questioning, starting with the deputy chair.
Senator Tannas: Thank you very much for being here and for your very powerful words. I’d like to wait and let others go ahead.
Senator Brazeau: I would like to thank all of you for joining us. First I would like to thank you for the work you have done, which is historic and certainly complex, but necessary for Canada. I also want to thank those behind you who were involved and contributed to the report we received in 2015. I commend you.
It has been almost three years since your report was released. What are your views on how this government has responded to the 94 calls to action? Are you in a position to say whether the government has taken concrete action in response to the calls to action set out in your report?
Ms. Wilson: Thank you for the question, Senator Brazeau. I will start by saying that I am unable to give you a complete answer as I am not aware of what happens in government every day. I can tell you that there have been some good first steps, but, to date, they have not resulted in the concrete and real changes that we had hoped for. I think that having a government that starts by stating that it agrees with us and that it will do something is very important. Across the country we have seen situations where a political position has had to be taken in order for people to take action. I believe that it is a good start, but we are still far from seeing the changes needed. This must continue; it must not stop.
Senator Brazeau: I’ve said this time and again. I still consider myself very young, but I have dealt with four prime ministers with respect to indigenous issues. In my experience, and you mentioned it, a lot of times the bar is raised, there are a lot of nice words that come out of politicians with respect to dealing with some of these issues, but in terms of concrete steps, we don’t necessarily see exactly what comes out of our politicians’ mouths. I have met many former Aboriginal Affairs ministers, both Liberal and Conservative. I truly believe that those people at the time wanted to make change, but I believe somewhere along the line, something changes. I have my own personal opinions on what exactly that is, but I would just like to ask and perhaps offer you the opportunity to perhaps share what you may think is the problem. I think there are lots of good intentions out there from people from any political stripe or colour, but we don’t necessarily see the action that we should be seeing as indigenous peoples.
Ms. Wilson: I’m sure my co-commissioner colleague, now your colleague, will want to speak to this as well, but I’ll begin by saying this: I think our history — and I will speak pre-commission in my many years as a journalist as well in dealing with many ministers and prime ministers. But particularly on indigenous affairs issues, I think it would be a fair comment to say that it was never a portfolio that was sought after and that was deemed to be a perk assignment; and second, that there has rarely been someone who has gone into that portfolio already well-grounded and well aware of the issues. Everyone talks about it as having been a hugely steep learning curve because these are not the normal, everyday realities of the people who end up heading up the department.
I think where my hope around that point lies now is that we now know, or we have no excuse for not knowing, far more about the realities on the ground in the historic frame for those realities than we have ever known before. We know that as citizens, we know that in our civil society and we certainly know that as government, and our federal government certainly knows it as the national government. So I think we should be and should expect to be beyond the point of starting from scratch every time around and that we should start to be able to reasonably expect changes that inform the next changes that inform the next changes instead of starting all over.
The second point I would say, which is one that I made in the written remarks, is that if we have the political will to acknowledge that reconciliation and these pieces of urgent work are not partisan issues, then we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater every time we have a shift in government or a change of minister or a shuffle or an election, to say: Now what do we do? We have what I think is a long-term, charted pathway of work and of building forward that should compel us all and that should bind us all and that should allow for continuation rather than perpetual start up and breaking.
Senator Sinclair: Now you got me started.
Senator Brazeau: Good.
Senator Sinclair: First of all, I want to congratulate and thank my colleague for the presentation that she did, because I thought it was very thorough, very well done, and she wrote almost all of it. I added the part about what good people we are as senators, incidentally, just so you know.
Ms. Wilson: I don’t believe I said that.
Senator Sinclair: I compelled you to say that.
So here’s the issue: The issue is that, for the longest time, and even today, Canada just doesn’t care enough to make the change. It’s that simple. If Canada really cared — and I’m talking about the people of Canada as well as the people in government — cared enough, they would do it. They care enough about business to do the things for business that need to be done. They care enough about industry. They care enough about other elements of society to effect the changes that need to be done to make those things work and address the needs of those elements of society, and they make it work. But they don’t care enough to make this work. That isn’t to say that they don’t care. We have met thousands of people who care. We have met thousands of people who want to do something, and it’s a constant question in the presentations that we do. They want to know what it is they can do.
But when it comes to those institutions of society that we have to motivate in order to be the engines of change in society, we’re fighting a lot of inertia and we’re fighting a lot of institutional complexities that are built into effecting the kinds of changes that we want because they’re built to go in a certain direction, government among them, churches among them, social institutions among them. Charities, for example, have to really rethink how they’re doing business, what it is that they’re trying to achieve, what it is they want this country to look like and how they want to contribute to that. That requires sometimes rejecting some fundamental beliefs that run their systems and institutions at present.
Early on, when we were doing our work as commissioners and we had discussions among ourselves as commissioners and with our staff, that was one of the questions that we asked ourselves, and that is: When you look at all of the reports that have been done leading up to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, but all of the other reports — and they’re in the dozens — of major studies that have been done on the relationship between Aboriginal people and elements of society, including the justice system, the child welfare system, the health care system and government, and all of the recommendations, when you bring them together, the similarities among those recommendations is stark. The question that obviously arose is: Why is it taking so long and why has it taken so long for change to happen, for government to do what it has to do, for society to do what it has to do? Why is it taking so long to implement the treaties, to recognize the validity of the treaties? Why is it taking so long for the courts to recognize the unique relationship of indigenous people in society?
The answer from some of our staff was: It’s because they don’t care. I was not one to allow that to be the answer. My response to that is I think they want to care; I don’t think they yet care enough. And it’s up to us as a commission to make them care. So that’s what we set out to do as a commission, was to make people care, to make them care about this. It took a while. It took a while to convince survivors and their families and their communities that there was still hope and there was still a good reason to continue to knock on these doors and kick at these walls and talk to these people.
But it was also about talking to people who needed to hear this and to get them to understand that when they put, for example, the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement together, there were many on the side of government and churches and opposite side of the survivors who thought that simply signing the settlement agreement and contributing to a compensation fund was it and now our work is done. Now it’s up to Aboriginal people to heal. Now it’s up to them to reconcile. Reconciliation for many, in that circumstance, meant it’s up to them now to get over it and get going. We made them see that it isn’t that easy, because Canadian society has built institutions around the concept of superiority of European institutions, European societies, European belief systems, and the inferiority of indigenous people. To some extent, indigenous people have inherited that mythology.
So we had to attack that, address it right at the beginning, and we spent a lot of time doing that. That’s why one of the most important things that I think we say in our report, and said in the course of our presentations to survivors and when we were talking to the public, was that education is the key to reconciliation, because if we can start to talk to children in society about how to talk to each other and about each other with more respect and understand this history, but also understand the society that they’re growing up in in a better way, they will be the engines of change in the future. That’s also why we say reconciliation is going to take a long time, because those generations have to be allowed to grow up and to be reeducated, or to be educated, and to take over the reins of power eventually.
The people who are now in positions of power, we still have to talk to them. We still have to show them in our report the facts and show them how things are going wrong and try to persuade that change, but that’s going take longer there because they’re used to succeeding in the environment that exists today. So when we go to government, for example, we can find people in positions of power who will agree with everything you say, but when it comes to changing the way that government institutions do things, when it comes to changing the way that governments relate to people, indigenous people in particular, they have a hard time figuring out how to change the way they do business. So as a result, there’s a naturally built-in resistance not necessarily caused by human thinking but just systemic inertia that stops change from happening.
I’ve often said that we hear the words of reconciliation coming from the leadership but we don’t see it yet. It’s like putting lights on a tree and calling it Christmas; that doesn’t make it Christmas. It takes a lot more than that. So it will take a while. We have to recognize that it will take a while. We have to keep constantly pushing, and we have to recognize that it will take time and efforts, like what all of you are doing, trying to familiarize yourselves enough so that you can talk to other senators about what it is that we need to do. And I include myself in that group.
I told a story to some of you that when I retired as a judge, I fully intended to go live the life of luxury that I had intended to live in my neighbourhood, and when I got a call from the Prime Minister asking me to be a senator, I said, “Prime Minister, I was just 28 years as a judge, one of the most respected positions in society. I just completed the TRC report and I’m riding a wave so high that people are almost worshipping me, and you want me to do what?” I recognized the challenge. I recognized the need for this institution to take on that kind of responsibility because this is an important institution to society. It’s an important institution of change. I’ve said to all of you many times in the course of our work together that I think we can do it if we put our minds together, but we have to put our minds and our hearts together to make this happen.
Senator Brazeau: I have a follow-up question, but out of respect for my colleagues, I’ll go on second round.
The Chair: Thank you, Senator Brazeau.
Senator Christmas: Congratulations, commissioners. Your work has done a great service for Canada and a great service for indigenous peoples.
Several months ago I saw a poll result that said Canadians wanted to see indigenous issues dealt with in Canada. In the same poll, on the other hand, it said that Canadians were pessimistic that government could deal with these issues. One elder suggested to me that Canada doesn’t know how to do this. I pondered that. Maybe we don’t know — and I’m speaking of us as Canadians — what the next step should be.
So just out of trying to propose a possible next step, I was always very intrigued by your Call to Action 45, which called for a royal proclamation of reconciliation. It struck me that that call to action can be very straightforward, something that can be done immediately and something that could change or begin that chain reaction of change that I hope will occur in this nation. Could you spend a few moments just elaborating, describing and painting your vision of what you expected this Call to Action 45 to be? What would be the royal proclamation of reconciliation, if that were issued?
Ms. Wilson: I’ll start, and I know Senator Sinclair will want to say more.
I’ll just say contextually, there was a similar call for a proclamation included in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. In our review of that report and in consultation with a circle of former National Chiefs, we recognized that it was something good that was not yet acted upon, that was unfinished and that needed to be restated.
But it was also an acknowledgment that the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which provided basically for indigenous people not to be messed with, for them to be able to continue to live their lives in the ways they chose — I’m being glib with my wording there, but the core of that was a non-interference promise. It’s long forgotten by far too many. We act as if Canada began when everybody else showed up, as if we are a European country instead of an indigenous country where other people from around the world have come in the last relatively few hundred years.
It’s a way of resurfacing and resurrecting a founding principle and a predating provision that had both moral and legal underpinnings to it. That was my understanding of how we came to it and then where we would go from there. What all would be in it, I know that Senator Sinclair has thought more specifically about that than I have.
Senator Sinclair: That’s actually a pretty good explanation. I just want to add one part to that. We’re concerned that any effort by this government or any government going forward will always be subject to the whims of the next government wanting to undo everything. We’re very concerned that the political forces that are out there are more interested still in accessing resources on indigenous lands and taking resources from indigenous lands. We’re concerned that there are people who are afraid of the rights that indigenous people have to the lands that they are now in possession of and historically claim as their traditional territories. We’re concerned that there are people who are still prepared to use the law to override the rights of indigenous people. So we are concerned that future governments may not be as serious about the reconciliation end of things as this government is or could be or might be or will be, or the next government. We’re concerned that in 50 years from now, people may change their minds and decide to go back to trying to wipe indigenous people off the face of the legal earth in this country.
So one of the reasons why a royal proclamation for reconciliation was important is because it would stand as a constitutionally entrenched document that could be unilaterally issued by the federal government but would have constitutional status that would define the nature of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in this country forever. Therefore, the reconciled relationship and the commitment to reconciliation going forward, which I’ve already mentioned to you is going to take generations, will not easily be stopped and could in fact become an enforceable obligation. That was our thinking behind the need for a royal proclamation of that kind.
You’ll also recall, when you look at the call to action that’s just before that, we called for a national council for reconciliation as well, consisting of the various parties to the settlement agreement who would be the working body that would make reconciliation an active part of our social and political landscapes. It was trying to get people to commit, and trying to get governments and institutions, who had already indicated that they wanted to commit, to commit to reconciliation. They were prepared to commit. We said if you’re serious about this, this is how you do it.
Senator Christmas: Regarding the call for a national council, I understand that there are some steps moving forward along those lines. Are those steps in keeping with your call to action on a national council?
Ms. Wilson: I know your question is directed at Senator Sinclair, but I just want to clarify because he misspoke and I know he didn’t hear himself say it. He was referring to a covenant on reconciliation, which is different from the national council. I know your question is about the national council. I want to make sure we’re not confusing those two. The parties to the settlement agreement were attached to the covenant. Go ahead with your question on the council.
Senator Christmas: I’m just trying to get the commissioner’s view on the steps being taken to establish the national council. Do they align with what you envisioned?
Senator Sinclair: Well, we think it could have been done faster. It was a relatively easy step going forward because the parties were all in place. There was a national body of entities and representatives of government, churches and survivors that was already in place. Our intention, in putting forward the idea of a national council on reconciliation, was to formalize that. It could have been done more quickly.
One of the concerns that I had, and I’ve expressed it to government, is that there is a feeling on the part of some in government that having seen the report that resulted from our consultation over a period of almost eight years — and the consultation process with several thousand people, far more than the statements that we recorded, so we’re probably looking at having consulted with 10 to 15,000 people in talking about this subject — there is still the feeling on the part of some in government that they want to go out and consult again. Consultation, after this process that we have engaged in, in my view, is just an excuse for delay. You don’t need to consult when a report that is based upon consultation is presented to you.
Earlier on, somebody asked about how we get there. One of the things that we wanted people to know as well is in our final report, we believe that we have defined a process that will get us to a relationship that’s founded upon a reconciliation process. That’s what’s key, namely that there is a defined path, a defined process. If you look at the calls to action, they are laid out in a particular way. We think if you proceed systematically through that with the entities that we’ve called for, including the national council, then at the end of the day, there will be a kind of relationship that we envision as part of the reconciliation movement.
Ms. Wilson: If I could add a word to your question, first of all, are we happy with what is being proposed so far? I totally agree with Senator Sinclair. For me, it’s disappointing that it took so long. We were on record saying that that bundle, 53 to 56, was some of the most urgent. The idea of the national council was one of keeping this top of mind. Out of sight, out of mind has been the story of indigenous peoples in Canada for so long that we end up not even knowing each other, much less caring about each other. The national council was to make sure that we can’t forget everything that we’ve learned and that we can’t just go silent on the issues that are critical.
The national council would have a two-pronged job. One is to have a way of tracking implementation of the 94 calls to action, to say if we are actually doing the basics of implementing what was recommended on the basis of this massive consultation?
The second thing is to have a way of creating a kind of annual report card on whether things are getting any better or getting worse. If they’re getting better, in what areas, and let’s do more of that. If they’re getting worse, then let’s drill down, figure out why and see what we can do to address that. For it to be able to do that, it has to have teeth, authorities, independence, willingness and enough heft for other information providers, which would be levels of government and agencies and so on, to have to provide information rather than just saying, “We don’t really feel like it, or we’re too busy, or we did that last year.”
To your question, “What’s happening right now,” my understanding is an interim process which will be to craft out those authorities and that more specific mandate. It will be a lot more important to see what exactly is proposed, what do they come up with and will it have the means to deliver the kind of substantive information we need to stay on top of ourselves, to make sure we’re doing better on these things as a country, to make sure we’re paying attention to those areas where we’re slipping and we’re finding potentially ways to celebrate those areas where we’re making great strides.
Senator Sinclair: One of the other concerns I want to flag as well is that all of the calls to action that we put together, we carefully deliberated upon. Our concern with the calls to action generally is that governments and parties who are looking at the calls to action will pick and choose and they will not look at the overall plan. As a result, one entity, such as a national council for reconciliation, might be created, but it won’t have the covenant for reconciliation or the royal proclamation for reconciliation. There may not be a commitment to ensure that the students who are being educated in the schools are properly educated. It won’t have the various institutional changes that we call upon people in business to commit to.
You can’t pick and choose your favourite call to action and simply do that. When people ask us, “What can we do,” I always say take a look at a call to action and work on it, but the intention always is to look at the entire package for the national council and make sure that the entire process, the path to reconciliation that we define in our calls to action, is carried out. If you only do half of them, then you won’t get anywhere near reconciliation. That’s my concern.
Senator Christmas: Thank you, commissioners.
Senator McCallum: I wanted to thank you for all the hard work and great spirit you put into your work. I’ve worked at the community level for about 40 years delivering health care to First Nations. It isn’t specifically dental; it’s looking and addressing the social determinants of health and trying to expand the narrow concepts that were taught in dental school, namely that dental disease is caused by bacteria. That’s true, but what sustains them are all the social determinants of health. We’ve really made no progress into dental disease. In actuality, in all these years, dental disease has gotten worse.
I was cynical and pessimistic about changing the dynamics of how we’re able to continue to do the relationship with the federal government. I was looking at the mandate of this committee. I spoke to Senator Dyck about it because I was coming in with the cynical “this will never happen” thought. Then I went back to my room and I thought, you know, I don’t have a solution to all of this. I was searching and searching for a solution. Just giving that up made me able to shift my thinking to “this is going to be possible.” That’s one of the big shifts that I had to make in order to work here as a senator, that it is positive and it is possible.
I work with First Nations who have transferred their dental program and other programs for 26 years. I started working with them in 2013, so it has been five years that we’ve been fighting with the government on just the funding issue, because they fund for half a dentist to provide service for 12,000 people.
So when I look at the overwhelming context of what we’re working in, on First Nations it’s the absence of self-care, the absence of parenting skills, the addictions, the homelessness, food insecurity, abuse, whether it’s sexual or physical violence, those things that exist in our communities. Then I look at the government side and I see the power imbalance that gives them the power to do unilateral decision-making, even though there’s a formal agreement in place, and it comes from the cost containment policies and the interpretation of policies by individual representatives from Health Canada.
When you look at that and you’re fighting from there, from inside, it can become overwhelming, but we still continue to fight. This issue is cross-jurisdictional, so you’re looking at health, governance and justice. With Health Canada being in the silo method of providing care, we have made very little headway. They are now taking a proposal to the Treasury Board, which is something that has not happened before, so that’s a step. But I’ve had to remove myself from that because of a conflict of interest. I still work with them on direct patient care.
When you look at all of that, I know Canada doesn’t care that they’re taking so long. The communities are involved in it are working with the schools to look at the social determinants of health, to teach them to the children. So the communities are involved. They have programs and outdoor education, so they’re on their way.
I worked for four years as a dental officer for the province. When I worked in that office, I worked with the people and said, okay, we’re going to work with you and this is how we’re going to do business to support them. So I know that the capability to work with First Nations is there, but right now it isn’t there.
Where do we go from here? We’ve written to the Minister of Health about this, about the lack of respect for governance. That’s a very deep-seated issue. Because they don’t deal with governance, there are micro issues that come up. They’re not dealing with this, so we relate that to the minister, and she just says, “Work on your proposal,” but the proposal is being held up in the Manitoba region by these same people who refuse to make progress with us and refuse to see us as partners. That’s why I say I am cynical, but I’ve never given up on anything that I’ve started. So I think I’m looking for some guidance from you and from anyone here on where to go from here when we have tried to work with them as government to government but they’re refusing to acknowledge that relationship.
Ms. Wilson: You’ve raised many issues, and I wouldn’t presume to try to tackle the specifics of many of them. I would say to you three things.
Number one, the issue of dental disease, the issue of absence of self-care, the issue of absence of parenting skills, the issue of addictions, the issue of homelessness and the issue of cross-jurisdictional wrangling over provision of services are all issues that came up in our public hearings.
When I presided, I specifically framed the sessions by asking four opening guiding questions. The first was: What was life like before residential school? The second was: What happened to you at school? What was your school experience? The third was: What was your life like after school? And the fourth was: What would reconciliation look like to you?
In that fourth area in particular and the section about life after residential school, people raised all these issues. It wasn’t limited to talking about residential schools; it was about the aftermath of that and all of these things. I’m saying that, first of all, to tell you that they are issues we heard about, and I know they are present and continuing issues.
The second thing I would say is that we tried in the ways that we could to capture that bundle, if I can call it a bundle, of calls to action around health issues in sections 18 to 24. There’s a whole section there around health calls to action, and some of them deal with Jordan’s principle and other cross-jurisdictional issues and the principles that underlie that.
The third thing I would just offer is that in my opening remarks when I said hold the government to account, the government is on record — and I think this is a very helpful thing for all of us — saying that it supports and endorses all 94 calls to action. That’s a good thing because it gives an expectation to ask against, to advocate against, to push against and to say, “What about these 18 to 24? Where do some of these issues fit?” If they can be attached to the calls to action where the government has committed that it is trying to be supportive, then maybe there’s some room there.
Beyond that, I’m not sure what else to offer in response to your many points.
Senator Sinclair: Let me begin just by addressing the first issue you raised, and that is that you were prepared to give up and believed there was no hope in getting things changed. This was a common sentiment that we heard from many people. To a certain extent, as commissioners, we would run across this feeling ourselves as part of our work because we were getting inundated by so many stories from people who had experienced so much and we did not expect to hear so many stories from so many people about what had happened to them and such negativity around that. Even those who had never been abused told us about the sense of loss they felt over their loss of language and culture and the fear that they were next while they were in school. They would often say, “Government is never going to change. They’re not going to do anything to help us. They’re not going to do anything different. They’ve got us under their thumb and therefore they’re never going to let us out.”
I found myself thinking through that very carefully because it’s a feeling that can pass through them into us as well and cause us to wonder whether we were ever going to have any impact and have the right impact. I’ll tell you what gets me through it now and got me through it then, and that is the belief that you don’t have to believe that reconciliation will happen; you have to believe that reconciliation must happen. That’s what will get you through this. You have to believe that you have to do something about this. If you believe that it’s going to happen and then you don’t see it happen, you’ll give up on that belief very easily. But you have to believe that it must happen and you have to believe that you have to do what you can to make it happen.
The fact of the matter is that you’re probably talking to the wrong people when you’re asking the question about what should we do about this particular problem that you’re facing, because the people who have experience at activism and taking action and fighting this battle out on the ground are the people you should be talking to to find out what works and what doesn’t work. I’ll give you Cindy Blackstock’s address afterwards and suggest that you and she have a discussion. Okay?
Senator McCallum: I just wanted to make a comment. When we looked at the program that the community and I were looking at, we did look at the Calls to Action 21 and 22 and combined them. It’s not a healing centre, but it is — it’s a healing centre, but specifically dental. We did write to the Prime Minister’s Office about this issue, about the governance, but there’s been no response since. I think that’s where — like, where do you go from there, then? But like Senator Sinclair said, we have to say reconciliation must happen.
Senator Sinclair: You have to find people that are going to help you make that happen, too. This is not going to happen just because you wish it.
Senator McCallum: Yes.
Senator Sinclair: The issue of healing centres was something that we felt was very important because halfway through our work as the TRC, the government stopped funding the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which was funding healing centres and healing programs around the country, all of which were having a tremendously positive impact upon the lives of survivors and indigenous communities. We could immediately feel the impact of that loss of funding on the part of those communities and those survivors in the work that we were doing because now they were looking around to find a way that they could continue to sustain a process of healing that they had started. So it was an important question, because you can’t go through 150 years of oppression and denial and of creating this huge problem of injury for people and then suddenly say to them, “You’re going to be okay now because we’re going to stop hurting you.” It doesn’t work that way. You have to now engage in a process of repairing that.
That’s part of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that governments have an obligation to repair what must be repaired, to replace what has been taken and to assist people in their recovery when they have themselves spent so much time, energy and resources to try to destroy them. Government needs to accept that. If they’re committed to the UN declaration, they must be committed to this and you have to hold them to that. But just because you say it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen; you have to find a way to say it effectively.
Senator McPhedran: Thank you, Dr. Wilson and Senator Sinclair, for being with us this evening.
I wanted to return and hopefully get into a little more detail on your recommendation around what you termed a new royal proclamation. I must say I’ve always been fascinated by the decision to keep the adjective “royal.” If I could understand a bit more of that from you, given the Constitution Act of 1982, section 25, referencing the proclamation directly, and also given the focus of this committee for nation-to-nation.
My question is really about the optimal role of a new proclamation in this architecture of reconciliation that you’ve been talking to us about tonight, how to build in sustainability mechanisms that take us beyond changes of government. Do you see the potential new royal proclamation as being a domestic application of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples where there would be much in the declaration that we see now that we would see reflected in our own Canadian proclamation? Can you help me understand a bit more what kind of content we’d be looking for?
Senator Sinclair: It’s not for us to define the contents of the proclamation.
Let me deal with the first issue that you raised about the question of royal versus a simple proclamation. In law, there’s a difference. There’s a significant difference. When we discussed it with elders in the West in particular — and this is an area that we had a lot of experience with because of the influence and contact that Commissioner Littlechild had with the treaty chiefs — there was a huge insistence that one of the things that the commission had to do was to reinforce the relationship that the Crown had with indigenous people in Canada; that the relationship, particularly in the treaties, was not with Canada, it was with the Queen. That relationship was important to the elders and they didn’t want us to mess around with that. That relationship was to be reflected in our Calls to Action. So there was that part of it that we were addressing.
But in addition to that, in law there’s a difference between a proclamation and a royal proclamation. A royal proclamation has special status in law. It’s a constitutional document. A proclamation is, in effect, a colonial declaration issued by the Home Office in England and therefore doesn’t have the same status. Royal proclamations are more difficult to change, and royal proclamations are in fact the declaration by the head of state of the relationship, in this case, but a declaration by the head of state of a particular legal set of affairs. As a result, we drew upon that experience and that concept to fashion that Call to Action.
The elements of the royal proclamation, in our view, are not for us or the government to define. If you look at the wording of the call to action, you’ll see that we talk about the government consulting with First Nations people and with indigenous people in order to put together the wording, the proper contents of a royal proclamation.
As a jurist and as a lawyer, I can tell you that I do not necessarily see the contents of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples automatically flowing into a royal proclamation because a royal proclamation is, in effect, a commitment by the Crown to a certain state of legal affairs, a certain state of law. So if the Crown is going to state what kind of relationship it’s going to have or how it’s going to behave or deal with certain things, it should draw upon other documents in which it has done so.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 made a significant number of legal statements about the relationship the Crown was going to have with indigenous people, and its promise to not interfere with indigenous people was a key element of the Royal Proclamation. But there were elements of that Royal Proclamation that I think indigenous people today would find unacceptable, so we’re not suggesting that that simply be brought forward.
It was also in keeping with the idea of a Royal Proclamation contained in the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples because they said their rationale was it’s time for us to redefine our relationship, and we think the best way of doing that is through a Royal Proclamation, which, as indigenous people, we have a right of say in.
I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s the thinking that we had behind the call to action when we put it forward.
Ms. Wilson: I think you’ve covered it well.
Senator McPhedran: Just as a bit more of a clarification:So in the work that we’re trying to do here, the kind of practical consideration and recommendations that we’re working toward in this committee to the nation, defining in more detail and with more of an emphasis on implementation, longer term, and building the nation-to-nation-to-nation relationship, is the Royal Proclamation seen potentially as the core legal document for the reconciliation path forward?
Senator Sinclair: It’s one of them.
Senator McPhedran: So it doesn’t have a central place.
Senator Sinclair: Well, it depends on the state of the process that you’re in. Keep in mind, again, if you look at the Calls to Action, we talked about the UN declaration and the importance of the UN declaration as a framework for reconciliation. What we meant by that is if you read the Royal Proclamation — it’s a very short document at only 46 clauses long — then you will come to an understanding of what it is that state nations need to do in order to come to terms with its past and its relationship with indigenous people around the world. So that’s an important legal document. A commitment to that legal document is key to reconciliation going forward, and it needs to be part of the legal network that we’re going to have.
The Covenant on Reconciliation is also important because that is like a treaty. We called it a covenant, not a treaty, but we said a Covenant on Reconciliation is a commitment in writing made by all of the parties to the relationship, both present and future, about what kind of relationship they want to have. The idea of the Royal Proclamation is a declaration by the head of state that this is the kind of relationship that this country cannot back away from.
The Chair: Before we proceed to second round, I would like to —
Senator Sinclair: You mean we have to do this again?
The Chair: That was just the practice round. I’m just kidding.
Dr. Wilson, I thank you very much for your presentation. You started out saying that you were very angry and frustrated, and then later on you talked about being more hopeful after having been in Finland and hearing what your granddaughter was talking about and imagination. Our committee has struggled with this, and Senator Sinclair knows this very well because he was part of our steering committee for a time. We struggled with how to proceed. I think, basically, we’re hoping that we get people to use their imagination, like your granddaughter did, because we tend to get boxed in.
You mentioned, Dr. Wilson, that you had four questions during your work in the commission. We developed a set of five questions, hoping that would get people thinking of what you envision for your grandchildren. What would your vision of the world look like if it was a world where you had the rights and you had equal access? We’re trying to get them to express that, not in legal terms but actually express what that would look like. My question to you, and I’m almost afraid to ask it, is this: Do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think that will work?
Ms. Wilson: As a process approach, you mean?
The Chair: Yes. We plan to go out, and we’ve had a couple of practice sessions here in Ottawa with people coming to us and asking them to say if things were better, what would they see. And oftentimes what happens is people tend to get stuck in the past, and then we talk about the problems. But we’re trying to get out of looking at the problems and of looking back, and instead looking forward.
Ms. Wilson: I wouldn’t want this to be heard as a kind of absolute qualification of what your approach is or how you’re proceeding. I would say — and I’ve said this elsewhere — that I have a strong desire for people to build their action plans on whatever task flowing from the umbrella of the Calls to Action of the TRC rather than, “And here’s another idea; and we could also do this; and what if we did that?” Because there’s no end to the number of things we could list and frame and find that it’s varied wording on many of the same things. As Senator Sinclair said, previous reports touch often on many of the same things we said.
What I always try to remind people, and I didn’t specifically say it today, is that it’s very important that we not stop telling this part of the story. This commission existed, first of all, not because things were okay in Canada but because they were seriously broken, and the courts agreed, and something terrible had gone wrong.
Second, we had a TRC in this country because the survivors who were the so-called victims of harm took action, not because there was a bold government that said something terrible has gone wrong and we had better fix this. It was the contrary, where there was resistance and a pushing by the courts into the obligation to have a TRC.
We have already a kind of blueprint to the best of our ability and our very sincere efforts and our very hard work, with all of our staff support, to create a kind of blueprint that says these are the areas that need urgent attention, so anything that has the slightest whiff of “But what else could we do?” dismays me. I’ll be honest about that. What I want people to talk about and what I encourage people to talk about is that we have not anywhere in here described the “how” of it. We have described the “what” of it.
And the one thing that we have said consistently and repeatedly, if you read the body of the work, but with varying language, is one element of the “how,” and that is in consultation with, in partnership with, in collaboration with, in association with, together with, indigenous organizations, indigenous people, indigenous communities, indigenous governments, other levels of government and so on.
So I think to tackle what it is that you’re trying to do, I would ask what your core business is and how reconciliation fits into your core business as the Senate of Canada. How does it inform what you do, how you approach it, who you include in that work and what specifically on this already existing list do you bite off and chew and say we’re going to wrestle this one to the ground? Or, here are the ways in which we’re going to do the things that are coming before us in new ways. I think the challenge is always what are the new things we can do and what are the old things we can do in new and much better ways, and just to have that be a constant act of conversation. That’s what I would really encourage.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go out and talk to people, but I think if it is about consultation wide open, it is in one way a disservice to the blood, sweat, tears, and heart and soul of survivors, in view of these calls to action and those things that inform our 10 volumes of our report. That work should be respected as the starting point rather than another starting point.
Senator Sinclair: I helped to define the mandate. I well recall our conversations. Some of what Commissioner Wilson has said is some of those things I also said at our various planning meetings.
It is important that the ultimate objective of this committee be to essentially recommend to the Senate what the Senate should do and what the Senate needs to do. This should not be a recommendation to the country and what the country should do. That’s what our report and other reports have been about. The focus should be to recommend to senators: “These are the things we have discovered after we have talked to indigenous people and that we have included in the conversation a discussion about the TRC calls to action. We think, as senators, we can and should be doing these things.”
The Chair: Thank you. I would also like to ask something before we go to second round: Dr. Wilson, you also talked about the second force that was depleting —
Ms. Wilson: I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you.
The Chair: The second thing you talked about was the depleting force, and you were talking specifically about the verdict in the Gerald Stanley trial with respect to the shooting of Colten Boushie. His family was here this week. A number of us met with them, and they met with various parliamentarians. You said it was depleting, but I wonder if you could expand on that a little. I initially thought it was depleting, but I think they've made a huge impact. It started a wave of activity, like ripples, that won’t stop. Can you see that sort of thing? I know it’s depressing to think that in some ways we might have gone backward in time to the 1950s, I think you said, but do you think that could be a change for the better?
Ms. Wilson: I’m a very positive person by nature. I try to stay optimistic, and I’m a huge believer in good things coming out of bad things or positive things coming out of challenges. I see the potential of that moment, but I was describing it just because we are in a moment in time. Anything that sharpens the attention is helpful. Anything that says, “This is not imaginary; this is real,” is helpful to the cause of keeping the momentum strong and keeping us all mindful of our respective responsibility. So I do see that. When I said “depleting,” I meant soul-depleting. It doesn’t change that part of it, and I meant it in that way.
Senator Sinclair: The analogy I used earlier about putting lights on trees and calling it Christmas is something that comes to mind in this conversation as well, because I also was one of the senators who met with the family today. My view is that there have been lots of words said to reassure the family that there are some things that will get done in response to what has occurred, but at this point in time, that’s putting lights on trees. The question really is now: What are those action plans that are going to come out of it? I think that still remains to be seen.
Senator Brazeau: I’d like to go back to the earlier discussion we were having surrounding the actual implementation of the calls to action. Senator Sinclair, you also talked about political will. Just bear with me for a second and let me share a bit of my imagination.
Governments come and go, of all political stripes. They change. What often remains a constant is the bureaucracies, such as Aboriginal Affairs and the Privy Council Office. Their role, regardless of who is in power, is to offer suggestions, recommendations and advice as to how to move forward. It’s been my experience that those two departments in particular are there to try to maintain the status quo as much as possible — no pun intended, but not to ruffle any feathers — and to respond to issues on a case-by-case basis as they arise. I firmly believe that’s the position of the officials in the department of Indigenous Affairs and also the Privy Council Office.
We often may see political will from different individuals, but if those individuals are not able to go against the advice, perhaps, of their own departments, how do we crack those fortresses to make sure we are moving ahead, for governments to actually do the right thing and start implementing some of these calls to action, in this case, and to ensure that this report doesn’t garner as much dust as did the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples? How do we crack those fortresses? Whether people want to admit it, they do exist, and I have seen it.
Senator Sinclair: That’s an excellent question, senator. I want you to know it’s a question that has given us many moments of conversation during the course of our dialogue as commissioners around the calls to action. What are we going to say that will effect change?As I indicated earlier, the plan we put together always was that this is what we are confident will get us there if people do what we call upon them to do.
There’s no doubt that, within government, there is a significant degree of inertia that exists. There is a significant heaviness within government bureaucracy not to change direction and not to shift too quickly, too hard. There is a willingness on the part of some individuals — and some of them in senior management positions, from ministers to deputy ministers to assistant deputy ministers — to try to do things.
However, there are, in addition to that, forces that are outside of government, external to departments, that are forcing them to behave in certain ways that prevent them from doing the things they would feel it’s right to do. Audit reports, the Auditor General and other officials of Parliament who monitor the way departments behave also have to buy into the reconciliation dialogue as well. There will be a significant degree of effort in order to make this conversation happen, and it does require direction from the leadership of government on down through the system.
I will tell you that, from our discussion as commissioners and from the research I had done previously in another life as head of the Manitoba justice inquiry, when we looked at the whole question of which countries have been successful at changing their relationship with indigenous people, we were struck by the significant change in the relationship that had been effected by the United States. In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon changed the relationship quite significantly through a presidential decree with American Indian tribes by declaring that, from that point forward, the relationship between the Government of the United States and the American Indian tribes would be on a nation-to-nation basis.
Now, as a presidential decree, in and of itself, it really doesn’t mean much, but the impact of it was all that government departments were told that your success, your action, whatever it is that you do, will be measured against the question of whether or not it is adding to or detracting from the nation-to-nation relationship. And if it does not contribute to the nation-to-nation relationship, we’re not going to permit you to do that. Government officials were put in place to monitor that and give direction and report annually on when and if that was happening. That marked a significant change in relationship.
In addition to that, subsequent presidents took even more drastic action. Ronald Reagan, when he was President, basically cut off all funding for American Indian tribes and said that if we are in a nation-to-nation relationship, we shouldn’t have to fund you; you’re on your own. That led to the rise of the American Indian casino movement, and now there’s a great deal of wealth being generated by that for American Indian tribes. That’s led to its own set of problems but, on the other hand, that’s going to level out. It has levelled out in many places, but it will level out eventually. So self-sufficiency now has become part of the framework of the relationship, whereas it had been a relationship of significant dependency before that.
What I’m really saying is that it depends upon direction being given from the leadership and then enforcing that direction against the bureaucracy. I’ve said this directly to bureaucrats: I think instead of every senior bureaucrat getting an annual lump sum payment for successfully saving money within the department, they should be getting rewarded only if they have contributed to reconciliation this year, and then we’ll see change.
Senator Brazeau: You know as well as I do that that’s not necessarily happening.
Senator Sinclair: You’re right about that.
Ms. Wilson: We do know that the mandate letters for ministers, for the first time ever, did include an expectation that departments would deliver on those aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that were pertinent to those departments. To pick up on this last point, clever ministers would pass that along to the performance of the deputies and ADMs as well as an expectation. As the people become better informed about all of this and attitudes can shift, that can hopefully happen.
I don’t want to be naive about it either, and I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t think these are fast or quick fixes, but I do think that some of the things that stand in the way are self-preservation in terms of positions and such, and some of them have to do with stink attitudes that have no place in senior public service. It should be rooted out and dealt with as failed behaviour in a professional conduct and dealt with that way. That takes courage. I talked about courage before. It also takes vigilance and great determination for the highest of professional standard in that way.
Having said that, this has been and is very challenging work, and hope is important. I hold to hope where I see it. I can simply tell you, without going into any specifics, that I know of some federal departments at very senior levels that have specifically sought out opportunity for further discussion and drilling down what that might mean within their department. That doesn’t make it a sweep across government, but it does mean that there are some very good people working very hard to try to do right things. That can’t be dismissed with a blanket condemnation either. It would be self-defeating to suggest that.
The last thing I wanted to stress is to go back to the earlier comments we made about the National Council for Reconciliation. I can’t really say I’m good with what they’ve been asked to do yet because I won’t know until I see what they propose as to what that national council should become and what authorities it should have. But if it has adequate authorities, it would be able to look to federal departments and expect to have an accounting for what progress they’re making on reconciliation, in measurable ways. That’s a really important thing for you to be paying attention to and watching for and be prepared to have high expectations around what it would do and would have the ability to do.
Senator Sinclair: We must also, incidentally, never forget that there is a need for reconciliation to occur between Aboriginal people. In particular, indigenous leadership also needs to begin to reframe its relationship with its communities, because particularly those communities that have been impacted by the Indian Act, the relationship between those who are elected to lead those communities has been defined by the Indian Act, and now it needs to be better defined for the community by the people. Reconciliation at the community level is also very important, and better systems of accountability that are not defined by the federal government need to be put in place and need to be allowed to happen. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had some good things to say about that. In our report, we talked about taking a better look at the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Senator Brazeau: I thank you for that. All I’m suggesting is we often talk about holding either ministers’ or the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire in terms of moving forward and implementing some of these things, but in practice it’s also the bureaucracy because the bureaucracy, on the one hand, is there to protect the minister or the Prime Minister. On the flip side, the minister or the Prime Minister is there representing their ministries. It should always be a two-pronged approach to tackle them both in order to move forward.
Senator Pate: I don’t have a question. I just want to thank you both for all of that. My head is hurting, and that means I’m trying to think. So that’s good. I appreciate that. I want to thank all the people who are here behind you as well because it’s a testament to your leadership and the enduring commitment that everyone who worked on the commission had. Thank you.
Senator Sinclair: Thank you.
Senator Christmas: Dr. Wilson, as mentioned earlier, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into your work and report, so I can certainly feel the frustration. You mentioned in your remarks about holding the government to account. What can we do, as senators, as the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, to hold the Government of Canada to account on the 94 calls to action?
Senator Sinclair: I’ll come back tomorrow when you’re done.
Ms. Wilson: I was just going to defer to you.
Honestly, I don’t presume to know all the ins and outs of your mechanisms and how you do that. But I know that you are in a position to receive and contemplate legislation and to generate legislation. If something isn’t happening that is in the spirit of the work that sits before us all, why not take the oars on that and say, “Okay, let us be the ones who get that one rolling.” I don’t want to sound glib about that, but I would say that.
Then I would say that I know this chamber has taken a lot of pressures in recent years and is in a kind of quasi-independent state, but you have friends and colleagues as well, and maybe there are just helpful questions that can be asked with some regularity to just know the status of things and to indicate by your questions that these issues matter to you, that these issues are of concern to you and that you are anticipating, with urgency, that some of these things will be coming before you because you’re ready to move on them. Those will be just a couple of small comments on that point.
Senator Sinclair: I have a good idea of how heavy our workload is as senators and the time demands made upon us, but let me say this: One of the basic things everybody should be doing is everybody should read this report. This is a summary of the TRC final report. It’s been published by James Lorimer & Company and is available in bookstores. The original report that was issued by the TRC is now long gone in that form, but this is a repeat of it. The important thing is that people need to read that. When you read it, you will be compelled, I believe, to take action. You will find within it the terms of your own reference for your own action about how you feel about what you can do. I challenge all members of this committee to read the summary of the TRC report. I am confident in thinking that not all of you have done that yet. As much as I love you and as much as I told you that a year and a half ago, you still have not done it because it’s difficult for senators to find time to read things. But this is one you should be reading as public officials. If you can’t read it, get your staff to read it to you.
Senator Tannas: I have no question. I wanted to say thank you. Like Senator Pate, my head is hurting, in a good way. I think you have helped all of us sharpen our focus on what we want to accomplish as we go out and engage with indigenous Canadians. I’m grateful to you for coming and spending time, investing the time, even Dr. Wilson, when I think you thought this was a lost cause and maybe you were doing as a favour to Senator Sinclair. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Ms. Wilson: May I just offer a final remark in response to yours, sir?
When you read the report, for those who may not have yet, first of all, you’ll recognize a lot of the words I used in my statement, but you’ll also see some of the complexities of the settlement agreement that created our commission, because it was just one part of that settlement agreement. When we started our hearings, this great big complicated legal settlement agreement was well beyond the grasp and even the access of most of the people that we met with.
We were out there to do our job as the TRC, and people came to us and they wanted to talk about their compensation settlement or when was their hearing going to be or how come they haven’t got their payment or how come they only got part of it and where was their lawyer anyway? We were wringing our hands. There was a part of us that initially thought we have this big mandate; we don’t have time to explain the whole settlement agreement.
I remember at one point, myself being the one non-lawyer, that I thought I have to find simple ways to explain that settlement agreement to people because we can’t afford to get tired of explaining it because people need to understand what it is we are doing and how it is different from those other things. Otherwise, we’re just going to be shutting people down all the time saying that we can’t deal with this or that.
My point is this: I think we’re all in a place where we can’t get tired of this. We can’t get tired of the hard and often frustrating work that is reconciliation, that is towards reconciliation. We can’t get tired of having dialogue with people who are trying to advance and dig deeper.
So I hope my remarks were not heard in any way as disrespectful, but rather to simply say there’s urgency here. I hope you feel the urgency. We certainly felt it in every single hearing. We know that there are literally lives on the line for lack of things changing, and we need to be the ones who are part of the efforts to change things. We need that. People expect that of us and our country needs it.
Senator Sinclair: As a final gesture, Madam Chair, I’m going to offer you this copy of the summary report and ask you to file it as an exhibit here in your hearings as a commitment that we have made to contribute to your education.
The Chair: Thank you.
Senator Sinclair: We’ll provide you with this and tell you that if you want to share it, feel free, but I suggest you all go out and buy one. James Lorimer would love it.
The Chair: I thought you were going to say, “I’m going to check back with you in a week and see how much you read.”
Senator Sinclair: There will be a test on this. Next time I see you people, I’m going to ask, “What was on Call to Action 93?”
The Chair: Thank you on behalf of the committee. Some of the members have already expressed their gratitude to you, Dr. Wilson and Senator Sinclair. It is a great honour to have you here. The work of the TRC commission has changed the national landscape. We hear the word “reconciliation” all the time. When I listen to what’s going on in the streets with regard to what happened even with Colten Boushie, everybody is talking about reconciliation. The work that you’ve done, I believe, will not stop, because the nation has been awakened. I thank you for taking the time. You’ve taken a lot of time to come and speak to us tonight.