Indigenous Peoples—Our Painfully Slow Path to Reconciliation

Robin V. Sears

In his leaders’ speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the bulk of his rhetorical real estate to address Canada’s efforts to redress the systematic “humiliation, neglect and abuse” of the country’s Indigenous people. As veteran political strategist Robin Sears writes, the trajectory of the relationship since Trudeau first made it a governing priority shows just how complicated progress can be. 

Justice—now Senator—Murray Sinclair asked me, as he was finalizing his monumental report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the horror of Canada’s residential schools, if I knew what it would take to successfully launch a credible path to reconciliation.

My stumbling response was something like “Uh, forgiveness, apology, acceptance, I guess, uh…” He let the inadequacy of my response hang in the air between us, to drive home the point that reconciliation was too often a clichéd term that didn’t really have much content or authenticity.

“No,” he finally said, “that comes later. First, it is acknowledgement that our spirituality—aboriginal spirituality—is the equal of yours. Without that it is just a campaign for slow assimilation.” The power of his wisdom echoed in my head for days. As Miles Richardson, a respected Haida Gwaii leader, put it, reconciliation must begin with the respect that helps create a space in which the first steps toward healing can take place.

Reconciliation cannot have any real value or sustainability if it does not start from a genuine conviction about the equality of each partner, their values and their history. More than anyone, Sinclair has helped Canadians to begin that journey. When we look back on the progress we will have hopefully made on building a new partnership, it will be Murray Sinclair’s eloquence—offered in his truth and reconciliation speeches—that we will see as day one.

The emotional power that Sinclair brought to the message of reconciliation will have had the same impact as Martin Luther King’s Washington speech did on civil rights. But that speech was nearly 55 years ago, and two generations later, the U.S. is enduring its latest eruption of racist politics. Therein lies the challenge facing the Trudeau government—and every Canadian government which has made any genuine effort on Indigenous issues.

It is a long, frustrating journey from today—addressing centuries of broken promises—to achieving even the most basic visible, sustainable, and most importantly, believable, improvement in health, education, economic development and rights for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The seeds well planted today will deliver political benefit only to a future government.

Secondly, bad news sells newspapers. Even small tragedy trumps big triumphs in news and therefore public sentiment. The Trudeau government has made measurable progress in improving water safety on Canadian reserves, for example, but the failures remain in hundreds of communities, impacting thousands of families. That’s the news. The decades of mistrust and broken promises make even the most hopeful steps forward as fragile as a ceasefire negotiation. The collapse of the essential resource development and revenue sharing talks between Ottawa and the AFN is the latest sad proof.

Access to complex healthcare for Indigenous children has improved more in the past 24 months than in the previous 24 years. What was the big news story on indigenous health in the last month? The government lawyers spending vast sums to deny a First Nations child access to medically necessary care.

The elephant in the room, for those who work on and care about progress in reconciliation, is the dreadful federal department. Once known as Indian Affairs, later Aboriginal and then Indigenous Affairs, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is enormous, stumbling, incompetent, and full of what could be delicately described as “professional conflicts of interest.” The Trudeau government’s decision to implement, 20 years later, the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs to break apart the department may be a good first step to recovery. In the departmental split, Carolyn Bennett became minister of Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, while Jane Philpott became minister of Indigenous Services. As it happens, both ministers are medical doctors.

Until today, hundreds of INAC public servants have spent thousands of hours examining water purification compliance orders, individual patient health reimbursement claims, and the expenditures of individual First Nations reserve band leaders. Public servants at the upper mid-level of this vast, multibillion dollar public empire serve as cash ledger bookkeepers, performing functions done in most small businesses today on mobile phone apps.

Work on high-level strategic issues such as treaty implementation and government-to-government health and education agreements with Indigenous organizations got pushed aside too often. The division of the two departments at least ensures that the new Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs department will have no excuse for not moving harder and faster on the higher-level challenges.

The list of frustrations that this government has had in moving the reconciliation agenda forward is nowhere more painful than in the stuttering launch of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW) file. Like the first round of the TRC—before Murray Sinclair took over with a strong whip hand, a clear destination and the path to get there—this inquiry, too, has had squabbling commissioners, disgruntled and dumped staff, and loud and angry critics in many places across the country.

While the government pays the ultimate political cost for its poor launch, communications failures and peevish public defence of its work, the inquiry is an independent body which cannot be directed by the politicians it is damaging. Only time will tell if a complete re-launch with new leaders and new mandate—as happened with the TRC—is required, or whether the inquiry team is finally able to right its ship themselves. But, on all sides, time and patience is rapidly wearing out.

The struggles over child indigenous health and welfare services are perhaps the second-most frustrating dossier for the champions of change in the Trudeau government. It, too, is dogged by the difference between expectations of delivery by Ottawa and limitations on the feds’ ability to move more quickly, given that provinces, First Nations leaders and organizations, and the health care sector must all be aligned about solutions. Not surprisingly, they are not.

Bennett and her team have been successful in negotiating a set of regional and local agreements to improve child health and welfare access with the Manitoba Chiefs, with a series of Ontario First Nations who will receive funding directly. They’ve also struck a Reconciliation Charter in British Columbia, bringing together the feds, B.C. and the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council. More agreements are promised.

But there is a mostly unacknowledged shadow over this file. It is the intersection of large sums of money and some suppliers of foster care and other services off-reserve, whose hunger for revenue quantity is not always matched by their delivery of service quality. Most troubling are some awkwardly close relationships between some suppliers, some Indigenous agencies set up to manage the transfers and billings, and their leaders.

The government has tried to focus its spending on the affected families directly, on attempting to improve local reserve based care, and on bypassing some of these intermediaries. The angry reaction of those being cut out has received the highest level of media attention and political sympathy. Ed John, one of the most respected First Nations leaders in the country, has agreed to lead a new national advisory group on child and family services for First Nations communities.

Little attention has been paid to the advances in First Nations education. Nowhere is the challenge of delivering proof of real change for money spent more real than on this file. Some of the signs do seem encouraging: the government has pledged to pump more than two billion additional dollars into Indigenous education, and received a conditionally positive review from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that they will be able to deliver on improvement targets by 2021.

Canada’s first Indigenous-led School Board has been launched in Manitoba. The largest education agreement ever was signed in August granting funding and management control to 23 Ontario Anishinabe communities.

But as important as these incremental changes in health, education and economic development advances are, the acid test in reconciliation is rights: self-determination rights and treaty implementation. This government has slowed the waste of tens of millions of dollars annually in pointless legal battles with Indigenous communities—some estimate Canadian taxpayers have given lawyers $2 billion over two decades in endless stupid efforts to block treaty settlements in court. Some idiocies remain, like the money spent to deny a First Nation child medically necessary treatment, but the marching orders have changed, hopefully irrevocably.

Today the lawyers, officials, and outside consultants are being shoved in the direction of settlement as opposed to the foot-dragging, obfuscation and delay that is the DNA of the department. One device that the government has been wisely quiet about that appears to offer considerable promise is the use of small, confidential, discussion tables: Free flowing discussions, with community leaders, without lawyers, and with few boundaries. The process runs in parallel to some claims battles in court.

As veterans of post-conflict healing processes internationally will attest, it is always small private confidence building sessions, where participants are encouraged to check their titles at the door, that are the essential foundation stones for building more public binding agreements. It was true in Northern Ireland, it worked in the Oslo talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and most recently with Iran. The pain and suspicion in our reconciliation process is no less real than in those more famous cases. The same building process towards public reconciliation would seem to make sense here. So far, these discussions have taken place in dozens of locations over many months, involving 300 separate First Nations communities, representing more than 500,000 of their citizens.

An early success in the rights arena, building on the past successes of several Quebec governments, was the signing in July of the Cree Nation Governance Agreement. It is the first modern treaty in Canada, and sets out in fine detail government-to-government style divisions of power, accountability and finding, not unlike Canada’s constitutional agreements of a generation ago. It was pushed to completion by one of the statesmen of Canadian First Nations leaders, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. Similar progress in Ontario, with the Treaty First Nations on the prairies, and in mostly Treaty-free B.C., will be much harder and slower.

So, like many long-term social and legal re-engineering efforts of this kind, the two-year report card is decidedly mixed. If one is optimistic, one might say, it is clear that the new money and political will demonstrated by this government has begun to deliver change. If one sees one’s a glass more half-empty, one might equally observe that positive starts have quickly failed in the past, especially with changes of government.

Two things appear to be essential for this government to deliver on the too-high reconciliation agenda expectations it has unwisely fostered. First, they must become much better storytellers and communicators. Many of the agreements cited above are completely unknown to the vast majority of Canadians.

The old department’s communications credentials were a laughingstock in government. They were seen as too slow and too reactive, even by their slow and reactive peers in other departments. To win attention for some of the advances, and not just react late to tragic suicide and failing water quality stats will require an entirely different team under leadership that understands political communication in the 21st century.

The second too-often missing ingredient is proud and loud allies. It’s hard to blame, for example, a successful woman band leader who has made great gains on the ground for her community, not wanting to be seen advancing the storyline of a government that does such a poor job of telling its own story.

Without some of the new generation of smart, tough, well-educated First Nations and other Indigenous leaders stepping up more often, more visibly, to salute the hard-fought gains, backsliding will soon follow. Recidivism on this file, allowing inertia to drag back any advance, is the norm. Resisting the slide will require better stories told by authentic First Nations storytellers.

Contributing writer Robin V. Sears is a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He has worked on indigenous issues for nearly 20 years, as an adviser to the Assembly of First Nations and other FN organizations.