After Kamloops, the politics of Indigenous reconciliation will never be the same

Until fairly recently, the Canadian political conversation about Indigenous reconciliation was on a steady, slow-moving track. Kamloops changed everything — and there's no going back.

Overnight, the question at the heart of the reconciliation debate shifted from 'how far' to 'how soon'

Residential day school survivor Ray Swan is comforted by his wife Doreen Bunn on Monday May 31, 2021. The couple came to the Manitoba Legislature to grieve after hearing a report from B.C. that the remains of 215 children may be on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

At the end of his remarks during Tuesday night's "take note" debate on the possible discovery of the remains of up to 215 children on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia, Justin Trudeau acknowledged the limited utility of words.

"Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough," the prime minister said. "Only with our actions can we choose a better path, and that is what our government will always try to do."

On the need for action, at least, there is broad agreement.

"We all mourn the loss of those children, but to honour their lives, we need to move beyond words to action," NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told the House of Commons on Monday.

"I want action," Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said at his own news conference.

WATCH: Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole reacts to report out of Kamloops

Opposition leader reacts to report of children's remains found near former B.C. residential school

2 years ago
Duration 0:50
Erin O'Toole shares his thoughts on the report last week that the remains of 215 children were found near a former B.C residential school.

There are still disagreements on how to move forward. Naturally, the federal parties have differing views on whether the actions of the last six years have pushed Canadians and Indigenous Peoples toward true reconciliation.

But the news out of Kamloops, and the political response to it, have confirmed that there's no turning back. Morally and politically, the weight of responsibility is undeniable.

Media and political attention will move on, eventually, but it's harder than ever now to imagine that any government could easily get away with shirking that responsibility.

Six months ago, the Conservative leader was caught on camera defending the original stated purpose of residential schools. On Monday, he again renounced those comments — but he also scrambled away from his previous support for statues commemorating John A. Macdonald when he was informed by a reporter that the city council in Charlottetown had just voted to remove the first prime minister's likeness from a public square.

A City of Charlottetown staff member walks by the Sir John A. Macdonald statue at a Charlottetown Public Works building on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Charlottetown city council has voted to permanently remove the statue from a downtown intersection in response to recent revelations about Canada's residential school system. (John Morris/The Canadian Press)

Like Singh, O'Toole called on Justin Trudeau's government to accelerate efforts to investigate possible burial sites and account for the children who died in residential schools — something called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He also accused the prime minister of being more about talk than action. O'Toole said the Liberal government hasn't done enough to bring clean drinking water to Indigenous communities — 107 boil-water advisories have been lifted but 52 remain — and accused Trudeau of moving at a "snail's pace" to implement the recommendations of the TRC.

Six years ago, Stephen Harper's government didn't immediately commit to any of the TRC's 94 calls to action when the commission tabled its interim report and recommendations in June 2015. Harper's Conservatives said they wanted to wait to read the final report, which was delivered after that year's election.

Slow progress

Trudeau quickly promised that a Liberal government would implement all 94 recommendations. NDP leader Tom Mulcair said he was not being "realistic" by promising to pursue them all at once.

In fairness, not all of the TRC's recommendations apply to federal jurisdiction. And Mulcair might have been wise to counsel against over-promising.

But those recommendations now feel like table stakes for Canada's political leaders, and for the country itself.

They also offer one way to measure progress — even if they demonstrate how difficult it can be to decide how the last six years should be evaluated.

When the Liberals assessed their own record in 2019, they reported that progress had been made on more than 80 per cent of the 76 calls to action that involved the federal government — nine were said to be "fully implemented," 54 were described as "well underway" and 13 were in the "early planning stages." 

The CBC's ongoing tally of all 94 TRC recommendations finds that 10 have been completed, 24 are underway and 38 have proposed solutions — while 22 have yet to be addressed at all.

'We have to do better'

But the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre based at Ryerson University, believes progress can only be measured by how many calls to action have been fully implemented. It says that just eight met that standard last year.

"I think our government has done a lot, but we have to do better," Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the independent-minded Liberal MP, said when it was his turn to speak during Tuesday evening's debate.

Since the reports out of Kamloops last week, MPs have agreed to fast-track two government bills that respond to the TRC: C-8, which changes the citizenship oath to acknowledge treaty rights, and C-5, which establishes a national day for reconciliation.

Another bill currently before the House, C-15, would require the government to ensure Canadian laws are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Conservatives remain opposed to that legislation.

WATCH: Indigenous leaders call on Ottawa to examine residential school sites for graves

First Nations leaders call for federal government to examine residential school sites

2 years ago
Duration 8:03
Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, is among those calling for protection of former residential school sites after B.C.'s Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of an unmarked burial site in Kamloops.

"What is there more to do on reconciliation?" Trudeau asked aloud during a news conference on Monday. "An awful lot."

In the four-minute answer that followed, Trudeau used the phrase "we need to" a dozen times.

While Trudeau reminded reporters this week that action must be taken in partnership with Indigenous peoples, the government is justifiably fielding questions all the time now about whether it should be moving faster or further. Impatience is warranted.

The new baseline

But it's very hard now to imagine that the next prime minister (whoever that is) will face less pressure to do more. It might be nearly impossible now to go backward. What the Liberals have done over the last six years might at least be regarded as the new baseline.

After calling on the government to "accelerate" its pursuit of the TRC's calls to action, Singh told the House on Tuesday that only "a lack of political will" stands in the way of implementing them. O'Toole said MPs owed it to the children who died in residential schools to "redouble our efforts today toward reconciliation and healing."

But even if those rhetorical markers had not been laid down this week, there would still be those thousands of pairs of children's shoes laid out at makeshift memorials in cities and towns across the country.

Many Canadians knew very little before this week about the pain and suffering in this nation's past, and how it informs the present. It should be that much harder to ignore now.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.