The reconciliation project is making progress — but not quickly enough for many
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he does 'think things have gone slowly'
While Canada's reconciliation project with Indigenous people is showing signs of progress, it's moving much slower than many had hoped.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, it came with 94 calls to action demanding action by governments across Canada on a wide range of reconciliation initiatives.
Seven years later, only about 10 per cent of those calls have been fully answered. CBC is tracking that progress for readers with its interactive website Beyond 94, which regularly updates the status of each call to action.
But with Canada now marking its second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, everyone involved — the federal minister responsible for Crown-Indigenous relations and Indigenous leaders themselves — is saying it's time to speed things up.
"There's a lot of evidence all over the country of incredibly good work being done at various levels and various sectors of society and that is absolutely a positive response to what we had hoped for," Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told CBC News.
"I think it's all being too slow and I think the urgency of it all has not adequately dawned on everyone."
Wilson said she fears that elderly Indigenous people may not live to see reconciliation realized.
"The age of survivors is advanced and advancing," she said. "We know that every single day, we are losing survivors who will not see the benefit of some of the bigger things we had hoped for."
Tracking the calls to action
Douglas Sinclair, first cousin to former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Murray Sinclair, is the publisher of Indigenous Watchdog, an independent website that also tracks progress on the 94 calls to action.
His website says that only 11 of the calls to action have been completed (the CBC puts that number slightly higher, at 13). He said the reconciliation project is definitely not on track.
"There are positive things happening, for sure," he told CBC News. "It's just that those positive steps are outweighed, in my view, by the number of problematic actions or lack of actions. So there's definitely a long way to go."
While both Indigenous Watchdog and Beyond 94 say the first call to action — which demands efforts to reduce the number of Indigenous children in foster care — is making gains, Sinclair said it is not doing so fast enough.
He pointed to recently released census data which said that while Indigenous children only make up 7.7 per cent of children in Canada, they made up 53.8 per cent of children in foster care in 2021 — a number that was almost unchanged from 2016.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said governments barely managed to implement any calls to action over the first six years after they were published.
"But in the week of public pressure last year, with the public coming out after the unmarked graves [discovery in Kamloops and elsewhere] more TRC calls to action were implemented in the six weeks following that than in the previous six years," she said.
"That public pressure, though, has been distracted and it needs to come back on point."
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who has been learning the Mohawk language, cautions that while he has a view of where the reconciliation project is, it's up to Indigenous people to decide where that effort truly stands.
"I do think things have gone slowly," he told CBC News. "We have, as a government, set forth a very, very ambitious agenda, and rightly so, given the nature of the challenge and the history that underpins it predates Canada."
That ambitious agenda, Miller said, has seen historic investments in Indigenous communities since the 2015 TRC report was published. He admits those investments are just part of what's required.
"It doesn't mean there have been mistakes. There have. And it doesn't mean that we have all the answers, either, and there isn't more work to do," he said.
A multi-generational challenge
Miller said what helps to keep him optimistic are his meetings with residential school survivors — who have no reason to trust governments in Canada but who remain hopeful that change, however slowly it comes, will meet their expectations.
"The work that governments are doing is actually taking root, but not for them, but for the next generation and I think that is something that fuels my work," he said. "It certainly gives me hope as a minister."
Wilson said that when she helped write the TRC report, they presented reconciliation as an ongoing process.
"It's not as if there's an end date that we have in mind and are we going to make it or are we not," she said.
Sinclair similarly describes reconciliation as a "multi-generational process" that is going to take a long time "to filter through for the various generations as they grow up."
Frustrating the pace of progress, said Wilson, is what she describes as the constant changes in key personnel charged with leading the reconciliation effort.
"There's a lack of continuity in a lot of spheres, whether that's in government departments or whether that's in Indigenous leadership," she said.
"You can't get momentum and make fast headway if you're constantly having to just pause and restart and rebuild or move forward slowly. I find all of that really frustrating."
Blackstock said that while the federal government has provided funding to help locate unmarked graves, it has not funded the DNA testing required to link the remains found in those graves back to families.
Miller told CBC News that issue has come up often in his interactions with Indigenous leaders, but that to the best of his knowledge his office has not received a request to fund any DNA testing. He said that when such a request comes before him, "there absolutely will be" funding made available.
Establishing a national council
Both Sinclair and Wilson said that more needs to be done to implement call to action 53, which calls for the establishment of a National Council for Reconciliation which would submit an annual report to Parliament on progress achieved over the previous year.
Miller did introduce Bill C-29 in June, which would establish the council. It remains in second reading in the House of Commons.
"I do believe in the good faith of all parliamentarians to move this, to move this forward," Miller said. "It's key to … measuring and quantifying the response to the calls to action."
The Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research and education centre, publishes an annual report looking at the status of the calls to action. In its 2021 publication, it criticizes governments in Canada for going after low-hanging fruit.
The value of September 30
"Some calls to action are symbolic, while others are structural, and Canada is choosing to complete the symbolic calls with expedience while neglecting the structural changes called for by the TRC," it said.
Wilson told CBC News that call to action 80, which calls for a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, may seem symbolic but that it has enormous value.
"That is very important to have a public space … that keeps us present, that keeps us alive to the issues, alive as to the history that has led us to this point and and really keeps us alert to all of the remaining work that is there and that we all need to be doing our part in that," she said.
Sinclair said today's National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a positive thing because it builds public awareness of both the horrors of residential schools and the reconciliation project.
In light of the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools over the past two years, Miller said that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation puts Indigenous voices first and gives Canadians time to reflect.
"It's important for politicians to take the time to reflect and show some compassion and understanding," he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.