'What will you do to further reconciliation?' Canadians need to act on MMIWG inquiry's calls for justice

It’s abundantly clear that Canadians need to address historic and egregious wrongs, says Joanne Seiff. But with the release of the final report from the MMIWG inquiry, she says it's also clear we're falling short of meeting basic recommendations to do that.

We've done too little to act on similar recommendations from past inquiries, says Joanne Seiff

Lorelei Williams, second from left, wipes away tears after responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Vancouver on June 3. Her cousin, Tanya Holyk, was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton, and aunt, Belinda Williams went missing in 1978. The inquiry's report contains 231 recommendations to prevent such tragedies and it's essential we act on them, says Joanne Seiff. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Canadians call for a lot of inquiries, investigations and make recommendations for the future.

It's too bad that after the reports are finished, it seems like nobody actually makes changes or gets anything done.

The recent final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls makes 231 recommendations, referred to as "calls for justice."

Based on the initial reports of the investigation, these imperatives aren't surprising. They are realistic reflections of what Indigenous women have suffered in Canada, and why so many of them have been murdered or gone missing.

This most recent inquiry, however, made me think of others:

  • The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry looked into the death of an abused child, and Manitoba was tasked with recommendations to improve the conditions of children in care (most of whom are Indigenous).
  • The Manitoba children's advocate's report on the death of Tina Fontaine indicated the system of supports in place failed Tina before she was even born.
  • The case of Brian Sinclair, a man who was left for 34 hours and died in a hospital ER, without treatment. His family (and many others) still worry about illness and injury for fear of dealing with racism when going to the hospital.

Manitoba's ombudsman recommended, in 2019, to stop monitoring the progress of the recommendations of the Sinclair inquiry, because the province — according to its own self-reporting mechanism — had "acted on most recommendations."

To those who have dealt with Manitoba Health lately as it struggles to maintain basic health care standards, it strikes me as unlikely that health care of Indigenous Manitobans has vastly improved.

These are hardly the only inquiries, of course. Recently, I read Bob Joseph's remarkable book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality. An Indigenous friend recommended it.

I was confused about how some of Canada's laws developed. How could so many inherently colonialist or racist ones still be on the books? I wondered how anyone would be able to fix some of the wrongs done to Canada's first peoples.

Now-senator Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, greets the audience at the release of the commission's final report in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2015. The report included 94 calls to action, some of which Seiff says are 'low-hanging fruit.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This book offers many ideas toward a better future, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's powerful calls to action. This gave me hope.

Some of the calls to action seemed enormous or hard to take in. However, there were a few that seemed like remarkably easy, low-hanging fruit.

'Begin by doing the right thing'

One struck me in particular. As a new Canadian (I became a citizen in 2017), I remember the oath of citizenship. It could be easily amended, as has been proposed by Justin Trudeau's government, to remind new citizens to commit to faithfully observing the laws of Canada — including treaties.

This is a thoughtful suggestion, because it requires nothing of Canadians born in Canada. You need change nothing in your lives to fulfil this call to action.

However, for newcomers, this is a chance to commit to a citizenship model which works from the first to acknowledge Canadian laws that treat Indigenous people with respect.

As Shahina Siddiqui, founder and executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg, suggested in a recent lecture series examining reconciliation from a multi-faith perspective, newcomers — if given the right tools — could bypass Canada's racist past in this matter.

Newcomers can start their lives as new Canadian citizens by modelling the right behaviours from the beginning — treating Indigenous peoples as equals. We newcomers and new citizens could begin by doing the right thing.

The Liberal government has proposed revamping the citizenship oath so that new Canadians make a solemn commitment to respect Indigenous and treaty rights. (CBC News)

Altering the citizenship oath is an easy change, recommended more than three years ago.

One has to wonder why anyone would hesitate to make this change at this juncture, yet Conservatives have voiced concerns that there isn't time to pass the bill in this parliamentary session.

At the same time, a former Conservative cabinet minister, Bernard Valcourt, claims the new MMIWG inquiry report is propagandist.

Does he, perhaps, protest too much? Even today's Conservative party thinks so. It's time to stop this charade.

Too little done on recommendations

If you read the recommendations of many of the inquiries and reports, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the MMIWG inquiry, similar suggestions are mentioned.

What are we doing with them? Next to nothing.

When I felt overwhelmed as a kid, my mother helped me write a list. She'd suggest I write "wash your face." When the list was finished, I'd dry my tears, wash my face, and tick that first item off the list.

At that multi-faith lecture series I attended, run by Westworth United Church, we were asked, "What will you do to further reconciliation?" I promised to be forthright — and perhaps even brave enough — to tackle writing about these issues.

A woman holds a sign during the closing ceremony of the MMIWG inquiry in Gatineau, Que., on June 3. Canadians Canadians need to address 'historic and egregious wrongs,' says Seiff. 'They're in every inquiry's recommendations.' (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

I'm not Indigenous. I'm a newcomer and a new citizen. I haven't voted yet in my first provincial or federal election, but I feel cynical about whether the government will ever do the right things to make change.

It's abundantly clear that Canadians need to address these historic and egregious wrongs. They're in every inquiry's recommendations. These basic rights — health care, safety, family rights, education, justice and government issues — affect our Indigenous neighbours, relatives and friends every single day.

Canada, what the heck are we waiting for? Let's start ticking off those recommendation lists. We can do better. Let's do it — together.

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Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.