Until systemic racism is acknowledged and addressed there will be little progress made on the 94 Calls to Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the legacy of Indian residential schools.
“We live in very much a society where racism is endemic and it’s just everywhere,” said Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek, inaugural vice-president of Equity, People and Culture at York University. “Unless we recognize that, I personally feel it’s very difficult to work through reconciliation when people aren’t upfront and being honest with one another and be(ing) truthful about the existence of racism and the existence of these inequities that exist for Indigenous people.”
Cote-Meek was one of six Indigenous panelists to participate in a discussion hosted by the Yellowhead Institute last week on the cusp of the second annual National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
Panelists, who are experts in their fields, spoke to what they have experienced with the first 42 Calls to Action, which “attempt to address the systemic racism at the heart of Canada’s child welfare, education, health care, and justice systems, as well as… Indigenous cultures and languages,” said Ian Mosby.
Mosby and co-host Eva Jewell have authored progress reports for the Yellowhead Institute on the Calls to Action. To date, Canada has completed only 11. A new report will be coming out shortly.
“Our methodology has been a simple one: Has Canada completed a specific call to action or not, period,” said Mosby.
“We therefore decided not to award half measures and big promises. Instead, we maintain the premise in our reports that the changes outlined in the Calls to Action are both achievable and urgent,” he continued, adding that other reports and unachieved recommendations serve as “cautionary tales” of what could happen if Canadian politicians are not held accountable.
“Until all of the leaders of the federal government and the provinces and territories can acknowledge systemic racism, we’re not going to be making much progress on recommendation number 18,” said Dr. Janet Smylie, a leader in the field of Indigenous health.
Call to Action 18 is to acknowledge “that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to recognize and implement the healthcare rights of Aboriginal people as identified in international law, constitutional law, and under the Treaties.”
Smylie referenced comments made by Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who refused to acknowledge that systemic racism contributed to the death of Joyce Echaquan.
Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, recorded a Facebook Live video of the demeaning treatment by healthcare workers she suffered in a hospital in Quebec before she died. The coroner ruled that racism and prejudice contributed to her death.
Smylie said health, which is linked to all Calls to Action, is complex because authority is held by federal, provincial, and territorial governments. She said changes to date have been addressed “piecemeal.”
Panellists said that despite federal legislation and agreements addressing such issues as Indigenous languages and child welfare, the government’s work had fallen short in protection and funding.
“Our language continues to decline…(because) it is very difficult to separate systemic racism to the lack of language services. It is one and the same,” said Kunuk Inutiq, former director of self-government at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “So until systemic racism and power dynamics are dealt with, language protection and revitalization will be very difficult when government is expected to be a key player.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work, said she was tired of the “be patient speech.”
“The expectation of us is that we ought to be patient, which means to suffer in silence… while our rights, fundamental human rights that Canadians take for granted, are being violated,” she said.
Blackstock and her organization joined with the Assembly of First Nations in 2007 to take legal action against the federal government for its chronic underfunding of child welfare services on First Nation reserves. That action led to Ottawa committing earlier this year to close to $20 billion over five years to address long-term reform and another $20 billion to compensate in excess of 215,000 First Nations children and family members.
“(Kids) are still being treated unequally, and Canada isn’t moving to remedy (that),” said Blackstock. “(Canada) often looks at reconciliation as performative versus substantive.”
Scott Franks, assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University in the Lincoln Alexander School of Law, echoed Blackstock with the “be patient” speech, saying in the justice system, Indigenous people keep being told that change will happen incrementally, more research and evaluation is needed, and when Indigenous people suggest movement, they’re told they don’t fully understand what they’re asking for.
Settlers, said Franks, need to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let Indigenous nations choose for themselves how they want to determine that and if they want to ask you for something, do it.”
Kisha Supernant, whose name has become synonymous with the ground-penetrating radar work that is ongoing in uncovering unmarked graves linked to Indian residential schools, called the government out for lack of support and limiting funding for the work that needs to be done.
“This is extremely emotionally difficult work and a lot of the work is resting right now on the backs of communities. And I think there could be a lot more support and a lot more coordination because the burden should not be Indigenous nations’ job to bare,” she said.
Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta, said reconciliation needed to be more than “put(ting) up a memorial and wear(ing) an orange shirt.”
“It’s not enough to have a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation if the abusive relationships remain largely intact,” said Jewell, which, she stressed, is still the case.