Children should be at the top of the post-Truth and Reconciliation to-do list

Posted on June 4, 2015 in Equality Policy Context – Full Comment
June 4, 2015.   John Ivison

The ceremony to close the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was, by turns, poignant and inspirational.

During a seven-minute video of testimony by residential school survivors, many in the audience in the ballroom at Rideau Hall wept openly.

“Guide this country on a new and different path,” said Sarah Fontaine-Sinclair, the young granddaughter of Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC through six tumultuous years.

David Johnston, as so often in his tenure as Governor-General, summed up the mood.

“This is a moment for national reflection and introspection … to think about the depth of our commitment to tolerance, respect and inclusiveness, and whether we can do better. This is a moment to think about those people – those children, those mothers and fathers, those families and those elders, past and present. And it’s also a moment to ask: where do we go from here?”

The answer to that question depends entirely on which party, or parties, form government come October.

Stephen Harper responded to the TRC’s recommendations by saying his government is still awaiting the final report (due in the fall) before deciding on appropriate next steps.

This is a very convenient way to side-step the TRC — even though, from a policy perspective, he knows all he needs to know to respond. The full report will amount to millions of pages of testimony that still need to be translated and edited. But the recommendations will not change.

This, at least, buys the prime minister more time as the bidding war for the public’s affection gets underway.

Harper and Justin Trudeau were at Rideau Hall Wednesday. Using this analogy, the Liberal leader has already crushed the bid by promising to implement all 94 recommendations. One wonders whether he read them all before making that commitment. He almost certainly didn’t cost them. Such is the freedom from responsibility of being in opposition.

Tom Mulcair was slightly more circumspect, promising to launch an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, if the NDP is elected.

But he also promised to engage in “respectful nation-to-nation” relations, which sounds wonderful in theory but impossible in practice, given there are more than 630 “nations” with which an NDP government would have to haggle.

It’s not yet clear whether the stirring images of the past few days will resonate with non-aboriginal voters beyond the week’s end.

The last Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples made 440 recommendations but is now a forgotten footnote in Canadian political history.

The TRC may not prove a catalyst for change. But it could be damaging to Conservative prospects of re-election if handled without compassion.

The shot of Bernard Valcourt sitting, arms crossed, while an applauding Mulcair looks down, dagger-eyed, during Tuesday’s launch ceremony is already an online sensation. No wonder the aboriginal affairs minister was up clapping like a madman at every break in proceedings at Rideau Hall.

For his part, the prime minister has been at pains to express his admiration for the courage it took former students to come forward and share their painful memories. And did he mention he formally apologized to the children and their families back in 2008?

Harper has been decidedly more reticent than the other leaders, in large measure because he is in power. There are consequences to conceding that “cultural genocide” took place – genocide is a crime that would, by necessity, lead to prosecutions.

Harper has said he recognizes the UN Declaration on Human Rights as an “aspirational document.” But to lend it more legal weight than that would have implications on land rights, self-government, environmental rights and military policy.

Taken to its logical extreme, military activities couldn’t take place on land that had traditionally been aboriginal, while native Canadians would have a veto over matters that affect not only them but also the broader, non-aboriginal population.

Has Trudeau thought any of these implications through?

There are good reasons for reticence.

But one area Harper could push for immediate action is on native education. The billions of dollars to pay for an enhanced system has already been allocated and ring-fenced from other uses. The legislation has been written and it should not be beyond the bounds of reasonable men and women to craft a compromise around its language.

The opposition parties say they will hand over the money to First Nations, without strings attached, which may explain why AFN national chief, Perry Bellegarde, has not staked his future to trying to do a deal with the Conservatives.

But if Harper is looking for an olive branch to extend, this could be it.

He is, quite correctly, demanding that structural reforms accompany the cash, in the form of native-run school boards.

Just as local committees objected when rural schools were consolidated into larger school boards in the early 20th century, so chiefs are resisting the idea of losing any power and funding that would result from native school boards. And, given what we’ve heard in the past week, who can blame them for being paranoid about white control of their education system.

But if Canada is going to tread the “new and different path” that young Sarah Fontaine-Sinclair talked about so eloquently, the guiding principle must be to do every day what we all did this week. That is, think about the children.

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