By Ken Coates, June 3, 2015
Residential schools have been held up — appropriately – as one of the most destructive public policies in Canadian history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission summary report, released Tuesday, lays out for all to see the intensity of the residential school experience and the long-term legacy of this ill-advised, colonial system of cultural destruction. The government of Canada got an idea about how best to deal with aboriginal people and stuck with it for generations, even in the face of mounting evidence of a tragic policy failure. It is ironic, therefore, that the Commission’s devastating critique concludes that substantial, even sweeping, government policies and programs are required to set things right.
Surely the country can agree that a dramatically different approach is required. But it is not clear that the 90+ recommendations, which range from a national day of recognition and public memorials to additional funding for the CBC, and nation-wide educational interventions, will solve the problems so carefully documented by the Commission.
Real reconciliation will have occurred when aboriginal people have comparable educational outcomes, enjoy healthy and safe communities, have access to decent jobs and experience a level of income and prosperity comparable to that of other Canadians. Of course it falls to governments to provide the infrastructure and basics services, at an equitable level. Changes to legislation are required. Historical wrongs must be redressed.
But a government-driven system of new programs is not going to result in major improvements. Canada needs a broader societal challenge, in which the nation as a whole listens much better to aboriginal people and allows them to set their agenda and priorities going forward. There are better ways, in my opinion, to honour the legacy of residential schools and the many other historical injustices that marginalized and impoverished aboriginal people in Canada than by expecting the same political and administrative structures that created the problems to somehow solve them.
Fortunately, real reconciliation is within our collective grasp. The answer rests in getting on with the effort that aboriginal people and communities already have under way, capitalizing on their human resources, newly defined legal rights and regional economic opportunities. Aboriginal communities are increasingly carving out an equitable place for Indigenous peoples. And for the first time in generations, they have enough real power to determine the shape and nature of the socio-economic forces that defining their lives. Canada is adapting to Indigenous people rather than — as the residential schools demanded that they do — the other way around.
This is where real and exciting progress is being made. Aboriginal business development is occurring apace. More Indigenous students are completing high school, college and university and finding prominent positions in the private sector, health care and government. More aboriginal economic development corporations are enjoying commercial success. More than 300 Indigenous communities have signed collaboration agreements with resource companies. Indigenous governments and development corporations have hundreds of millions of dollars in investable assets and are exploring equity investments in hundreds of businesses.
Steady improvement does not mean that the problems are solved, but they do show that aboriginal-led solutions work the best.
Reconciliation is attainable in large measure because of the resilience of aboriginal communities, a set of remarkable and determined leaders, and community-level collaborations with businesses. Some government measures can contribute to this process, and these efforts should be accelerated. Governments should focus on improving roads, water systems, school buildings, health-care facilities and the like, in aboriginal communities. There is plenty to do on that score. From there, the country should turn authority and policy setting on aboriginal affairs over to aboriginal people and their governments.
Other Canadians can participate by training and hiring aboriginal workers, establishing joint ventures with aboriginal companies, patronizing aboriginal firms, supporting aboriginal investments — and insisting that Indigenous people have the same levels of basic support and infrastructure as other Canadians. Sustained equality of opportunity in the national economy and society will produce the best aboriginal outcomes. This is a real foundation for reconciliation. A country where aboriginal people have the political freedom and the resources to chart their own course, where they participate as equals with other Canadians, is the most appropriate response to the tortured legacy of residential schools.
Canada’s political leaders should be moved to action by the TRC’s powerful document. Several recommendations hold immediate appeal, particularly a nation-wide commitment to aboriginal language revitalization, greater attention to the inclusion of aboriginal symbolism in public affairs, and the formation of a high-level committee to oversee and report on the effort. The residential schools attacked aboriginal language and cultures. A national commitment, substantial, sustained and Aboriginally-controlled, to preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages should be a top priority.
But we must not look to governments, no matter how well-meaning, to achieve real and lasting reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report explains why the weight of history sits so heavily on the shoulders of aboriginal peoples. It behooves the country as a whole to share that historical burden and to make it clear that there is both understanding and remorse about the residential schools and related government programs.
The best way to get over the past and the legacy of grievous injustices is to create a shared and more equitable future, and to ensure aboriginal people have the resources and freedom to set their own path forward.
Ken Coates is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s senior policy fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues.