In many ways, I consider myself to be a very fortunate person. In my 40 years on this Earth so far, I’ve had the chance to live out some dreams of mine, do things I aspired to do & witness events that I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about some day. Getting the chance to work on Parliament Hill for a decade was one of those things. Having the chance to be in that place, be a part of the discussions and policies of the country & bare witness to history as it happened.
As a Métis person whose roots go back to Red River, I felt the weight and importance of being there at certain moments more than others. It was never lost on me that I got to work in a place that Louis Riel couldn’t enter without risking arrest and death. It was a sign of how far we’ve come as a country, but at other times I would get stark reminders of how far we still had to go. One of the starkest reminders came in June of 2015 when the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was presented, and I bared witness to this:
The image of seeing everyone in that room rise to their feet, Tom Mulcair included, with Bernard Valcourt glued to his seat in defiance of the moment sticks with me to this day. It was the ultimate sign of disrespect towards Indigenous peoples in Canada by the Harper government and as it turned out, would be one of Valcourt’s last as he was sent packing in that falls election. Since that time, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been looked up to as part of a roadmap towards reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples. Both the Liberals and the NDP ran in that election on the topic, making big promises of doing better.
The results have been a mixed bag; not rising to the promises and rhetoric of that watershed election, but still being a marked improvement compared to the indifference and hostility of the Harper government. While we can point to some steps forward, there are others that should have been easier to enact than others that simply haven’t happened. The reasons for that could be many, but it feels more and more likely that the real problem is more of a lack of political will than anything else. Every so often a story comes out that reminds me of that conclusion, and today another one came out, one that I have to admit got under my skin:
Jorge Barrera of the CBC Indigenous unit is one of the best journos in the country for my money, and his story today brings light to something that needs to be seen. One of the promises that the Liberals made in that 2015 election campaign was to stop fighting Indigenous rights cases in courts. Canada has habitually spent hundreds of millions of dollars every year fighting and appealing cases around Indigenous rights. In the vast majority of those cases, Canada looses and ends up having to compensate Indigenous peoples. That means that Canada wastes all that money that could have been put towards a solution on lawyers’ fees, then still has to deal with the compensation for those cases. It’s a needlessly adversarial approach that not only strains relationships but also is a colossal waste of government funds.
Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen some galling examples of this practice still being alive and well. We’ve seen the Liberal government fighting First Nations children before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, having “officially” spent over $5 million while ignoring orders against Canada by the commission. Then there was the case just a few years ago when Canada fought against Josey Willier, a teenager from Sucker Creek First Nation, in the courts. In that case the federal government spent more than $110,000 in legal fees to avoid spending $6,000 on needed orthodontics to treat her suffering from chronic pain.
Well Barrera brings a new example to the surface, one that’s ugly in its implications. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation wants to create a detailed statistical report that would reveal which Residential Schools faced the highest number of abuse claims. As the report notes, the federal government was the only party in the court case that opposed the creation of the detailed reports and the transfer of records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The Assembly of First Nations along with the centre, and the National Administration Committee that was created to oversee the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement all agreed to this. Only Canada said no.
What makes this story even worse comes from comments made by the judge in this case that sided with Canada. In his decision siding with Canada (that’s now being appealed) Ontario Justice Paul Perell decided that knowing this information would do nothing to help Canadians understand the horrible history of this period, nor help reconciliation. Or as he wrote in his decision “And just as the history of the Holocaust will not be different for not knowing which was worse, Auschwitz or Treblinka, I do not see how truth and reconciliation will be advanced by reports identifying which school was the worst of the worst or ranking schools in the order of which school had more student-on-student sexual assaults than staff sexual assaults.”
That is breathtaking ignorance on the behalf of this judge and amazingly destructive. The victims of those schools, the organizations that represent them and the body created to implement the legal settle all agree that this report should happen. Being the ones who were subjected to those acts, you would think that if anyone felt that such a report wouldn’t help “advance reconciliation”, it would be them. But oh no, it’s Canada and this judge who are clutching their pearls on this one.
The implication of this decision and the thinking behind it is as disturbing as anything else I can think of. Not only is Canada fighting this in court, we now have a judge agreeing with Canada saying that we don’t need to know the whole truth to have proper reconciliation. He suggests that people who live in the communities where these heinous things happened shouldn’t know just how bad they really were. He basically suggests that all suffering is essentially the same and that the details of that suffering don’t add anything. All of that is complete and utter crap of course, especially if you were the one who experienced those acts or are one of their loved ones.
This situation is another one that lays bare why Canada needs to stop going to court to deal with such things. Not only does it delay the likely result, you end up with damaging and ignorant comments like that, on the record, that sets our country back even more. That quote in that decision doesn’t happen if Canada doesn’t take this to court. The premise that somehow, it’s damaging to reconciliation to face up to the whole truth of the Residential Schools is just as low as it gets. Of all the things that many have said has hurt reconciliation, I cannot think of anything that would actually hurt it more than that sentiment above.
There is a reason why we had a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is because you cannot have reconciliation without being fully truthful about what happened. You cannot reconcile peoples if you ignore parts of their history that is inconvenient for those representing the perpetrators. The whole point of reconciliation is facing all of that history, accepting it, dealing with it, and working to move ahead together. Any attempts to water that down and dodge any of that history only puts the true motives of those who claim to see reconciliation.