CW: References to colonial violence, residential schools, the finding of unmarked graves, and other acts of discrimination against Indigenous peoples
Disclaimer: Hello, my name is Anna Huschka (she/her) and I just wanted to clarify a few things before you start reading. I am producing this resource from a position of privilege as a white settler on the land of the Williams Treaty First Nations. I do not intend to speak on behalf of any community or group mentioned within this resource, instead focusing on showcasing the diverse voices present in the reconciliation process. I acknowledge that there is a long history and ever-present occurrence of violence carried out by the government against Indigenous communities, and I hope to do justice to the problematic ways in which the RCAP and TRC Calls to Action have been carried out and implemented by the government as a way to demonstrate just how much work is left to be done. I also acknowledge that while recommendations from commission and government implementation plans are quite general, each Indigenous community is unique in their needs and ideal plans for addressing the issues they face. As such, reconciliatory efforts need to be specifically made with and for each distinct Indigenous community.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) arose following the disastrous breakdown of the Meech Lake Accord attempts to bring Indigenous issues into the Canadian constitution (1). RCAP ultimately resulted in a 1996 report, as a result of almost 100 meetings held by commissioners and members of Indigenous communities from 1991 to 1995 (1). The Commission was developed to accumulate the governmental obligations to Indigenous peoples from treaties created since pre-Confederation, leading into the development of key policy solutions to address the issues faced by Indigenous peoples as a result of colonialism, including those to minimize the health and socio-economic gaps of the communities (1). Members of the Commission met with members of Indigenous communities across what is currently Canada because “without their participation, there can be no legitimacy and no justice” (1). The RCAP report ultimately defined the need to reflect on the horrors of colonization enacted on Indigenous peoples in order to reconstruct the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in a way that allows them all to co-exist and thrive as they want without oppression (1).
Some of the key results coming from the published RCAP report identify the need to not only provide space and opportunity for Indigenous self-governance but to mitigate the historical and current effects of colonialism on Indigenous peoples as well (1). RCAP also acknowledges the need for mass social and political change in order to actually see a difference in the treatment and livelihood of Indigenous peoples (1). The recommendations from the final report of the RCAP includes the production of an entirely new Royal Proclamation that recognizes Indigenous communities as their own sovereign nations as well as recognizing distinct Indigenous governments, allowing for the creation of an Indigenous parliament and the expansion of Indigenous land and resource bases (2). The RCAP final report also calls for Métis communities to be able to govern themselves on a land base, with their hunting and fishing rights recognized on Crown land (2). The RCAP also calls on the government to take action to address the key socioeconomic issues plaguing Indigenous communities, including suggesting the establishment of an Indigenous university (2). One of the major recommendations coming from the RCAP final report was the breakdown of the Department of Indian Affairs into two departments, one for the building of a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown through the implementation of the other recommendations, and another department to support and work with Indigenous communities that may choose to not implement a self-government (2).
One of the key issues that lead to problems not only with the development and knowledge accumulation of the RCAP processing, but the capacity of identifying solutions and implementing these suggestions is the fact that the issues of interest from the mandate of RCAP were way too broad, with the Commission intended to “examine all issues which it deems to be relevant to any or all [Indigenous peoples]” (1). The final report included some quite problematic language, including a reminder given to each of the participants in the commission’s meetings to be sure they are ‘speaking clearly’, re-emphasizing the colonial stereotype diminishing the intelligence of Indigenous peoples (1). Within the section of the paper identifying the purpose of RCAP, there is a statement indicating that Indigenous communities “can be expected to welcome changes that assist individuals and communities to gather strength and renew themselves”, a statement which suggests the enforced moulding of Indigenous communities to take on changes decided by the colonial government that continues to oppress them (1). RCAP did acknowledge the historical treatment of Indigenous peoples as ‘wards of the state’ in which they were treated as the responsibility of the government, making way for the very oppressions that are identified throughout the report and still carried out today (1).
The RCAP final report provided a lot of key places where work needed to be done to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples within what is currently Canada, even providing a 20-year plan for the implementation of these suggestions; however, there was not substantial change following the publishing of the report (1). Included within this 20-year plan were financial recommendations of spending $1.5 billion by the fifth year of implementation and $2 billion across the remaining fifteen years of the plan (2). Due to these amounts of recommended spending, the federal government of the time insisted on waiting until after a general election before looking at the Commission’s recommendations and setting out commitments to actually implement them (2). In response to this declared hesitation by the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations organized and held a national day of protest in 1997 calling out the lack of government action to address the recommendations from the RCAP final report (2).
In 1998, the federal government finally issued a response to the RCAP final report published in 1995, with the production of Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, which dictated four key government objectives to implement the RCAP recommendations (2). The first objective was that of the renewal of partnership with the commitment of the creation of “a $350 million healing fund to address the legacy of abuse” for victims of the residential school system (2). Unfortunately this objective really seemed to only focus on the historic horrors of colonization upon Indigenous peoples, taking no responsibility to the acts of genocide still be carried out against Indigenous peoples during the time of plan creation (and unfortunately still continuing today). The second objective was to strengthen Indigenous governance through the opening of the negotiation process and creation of organizations to bring Indigenous women into more significant roles within self-governance institutions and processes (2). Unfortunately this objective of the plan seems to simply be vague promises of potential opportunities for negotiation with no guarantees for actual implementation of self-governance for communities that desire it. The third objective looks to establish a new fiscal relationship that allows for Indigenous communities to work towards and take on more financial responsibility, reducing dependency on the Crown without actually making any specific financial commitments (2). The fourth and final objective listed within the plan focused on building and supporting strong Indigenous communities by addressing socioeconomic issues Indigenous communities face as a result of colonialism, like housing and education gaps (2).
The federal government took on a commission-based approach again with the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) as a component of the legal settlement with survivors of residential schools (3). Rather than the broad mandate that was used for the RCAP, the TRC was given a much more specific focus of documenting the experiences of residential school survivors and the generational traumas experienced by their family members in order to inform non-Indigenous Canadians about the horrors experienced as a result of residential schools (3). Throughout its five-year mandate, the TRC hosted events and conversations with residential school system survivors to learn from them and their families, and share their experiences with the public, as well as supporting events and efforts by Indigenous communities and organizations (3). Ultimately, the work of the TRC resulted in a list of 94 Calls to Action to guide the government and other institutions on the necessary actions needed to achieve reconciliation between Indigenous communities and the Crown, which are in the process of being implemented today (3). You can access the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action here.
In May of 2021, the federal government at the time passed Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which integrated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian legislation, satisfying Call to Action #43 (4,5). Included within Bill C-15 is an obligation to create an action plan within two years of the bill passing for the implementation of the recommendations from UNDRIP, as well as accountability measures to monitor its implementation, including the production of yearly reports to track progress (4). Another legislative effort by the federal government, fulfilling Call to Action #80, was Bill C-5, An Act to amend the Bills of Exchange Act, the Interpretation Act and the Canada Labour Code (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) (5,6). Bill C-5 received royal assent in June, 2021, solidifying the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a national holiday every September 30th (6). You can read more about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, including individual actions to support the reconciliation process here. Both of these bills are honestly quite performative, allowing the government to boast about their allyship while sliding past some of the more concrete, direct calls to action, like those calling for governments to provide financial support for Indigenous-led health, education, and culture programs across what is currently Canada (5).
The Yellowhead Institute has produced reports analyzing the federal government’s (in)action to fulfill the TRC Calls to Action – you can read them here. Authors Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby bring to light some really interesting considerations in terms of not only which Calls to Action have been satisfied and the timing in which they came about, but also identifying key issues delaying government action to implement the Calls to Action. Yellowhead Institute observations further verify that Calls to Action satisfied over the last year were all quite performative, and the timing of their fulfillment was quite problematic as they were all quickly enacted shortly following the finding of graves at former residential school sites (7). After there being no Calls to Action fulfilled in 2020, we saw rapid successional creation of a Language Commissioner, recognition of a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and changes to the citizenship oath, which are all quite easily achievable performative actions that were clearly carried out for the government to maintain its false allyship position in the face of the devastating discovery of unmarked graves (7).
The Yellowhead Institute also identifies some key factors influencing the levels of inaction by the government to fulfill the TRC’s Calls to Action, including the lack of Indigenous involvement in decision-making processes, the government’s justification of discrimination and prioritization of non-Indigenous interests, and the overall refusal to provide adequate resources to address major socioeconomic issues in favour of taking on performative actions that make the government look better (7). Yellowhead Institute identifies the necessity of accepting and acknowledging that there are truly problematic systems and institutions in place and the need to dismantle and transform these systems in a way that allows for genuine change to occur (7).
Ultimately, while there have been many commissions that have identified concrete actions to be taken on by governments and institutions to address the issues faced by Indigenous communities as a result of colonialism and work into the reconciliation process, there is still an overall lack of action from the government. There has been a preference for governments to pursue the more easily achievable, performative actions to save their own image in favour of action to address actual issues facing these communities. Work by organizations to hold the government accountable on fulfilling the TRC Calls to Action is key to bringing the lack of government action to the general public. Not letting the government get away with quick-turnaround, image-saving, performative actions in response to tragedies within Indigenous communities and society as a whole to make themselves seem better allies is imperative for working towards reconciliation. It is the job of the general public, especially non-Indigenous members of society, to call upon their government to address the socioeconomic issues forced upon Indigenous communities as a result of colonization. The provision of funding and resources, and dismantling of oppressive systems and institutions is vital in order to make any actual progress in reconciliation processes.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Volume 1 - Looking Forward, Looking Back [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples; [published 1996, October ; cited 2022, April 27]. Available from: http://data2.archives.ca/e/e448/e011188230-01.pdf
Hurley, M.C., & Wherrett, J. The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Parliamentary Research Branch; [published 1999, October ; cited 2022, April 29]. Available from: https://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/EB/prb9924-e.htm
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Truth and Reconciliation Commision of Canada [Internet]. What is currently Canada: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; [cited 2022, May 6]. Available from: https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/
House of Commons. Bill C-15 [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Parliament of Canada. [updated 2021, May 25 ; cited 2022, May 6]. Available from: https://parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-15/third-reading
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commision of Canada: Calls to Action [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; [published 2015 ; cited 2022, May 6]. Available from: https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
House of Commons. Bill C-5 [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Parliament of Canada; [updated 2021, June 3 ; cited 2022, May 6]. Available from: https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-5/royal-assent
Jewell, E. & Mosby, I. Calls to Action Accountability: A 2021 Status Update on Reconciliation [Internet]. What is currently Canada: Yellowhead Institute; [cited 2022, May 10]. Available from: https://yellowheadinstitute.org/trc/