The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

What's next for Canada's First People? - Michael's essay

Michael on the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools and its 94 recommendations.
A fellow residential school survivor comforts Lorna Standingready during the closing ceremony at Rideau Hall. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

First, they took away her name. Then they gave her a number. Bernice Jacks, a young student at a residential school in Kamloops, became Number 39. Wilbur Abrahams was sent to a school in Alert Bay, BC. He was designated number 989. Take away a child's name and replace it with a number and you have effectively effaced that child's identity. It's something of a cliché that in these frenetic times, we are all being reduced to numbers. But in the case of residential schools for aboriginal children, it was literally true.

For the past six years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools travelled the country and listened to former students tell their stories. Many of those stories made the strong and composed weep. The 94 recommendations made by the Commission are important but to my mind, not as important as giving people a chance to tell their stories to a humane and compassionate listener like Justice Murray Sinclair.
Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair asks residential school survivors to stand at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa. Nearly 7,000 people shared their stories of 'ruptured homes and family, mental, physical and spiritual abuses, and childhood traumas left untreated.' (Canadian Press)

For the most part, Canadians are aware of what happened over the decades to the 150,000 children who were taken from their parents and sent to these schools. In June, 2008, Stephen Harper made an eloquent apology in the House of Commons for what we as a country had done to our First People. 

The most compelling question is, what happens now? Is there a political will to finally face up to and resolve what John Ralston Saul has called the most critical social issue in the country?

First of all, the government should scrap the Indian Act. Every Indian Affairs minister I've ever interviewed has called for its repeal, calling it a racist document. Then begin tackling the problems one by one. 

Break down the jurisdictional barriers between federal, provincial and municipal governments so that living conditions on 2,300 reserves can finally be improved. 

Focus on education by closing the discriminatory gap whereby non-aboriginal children are subsidized to a higher degree than Indian children. 

Create urban task forces across the country to work with the 60 per cent of Indians who live in our cities. 

And pray for municipal leaders like Winnipeg's Mayor Brian Bowman, who admits there is rampant racism in his city and is doing something about it.

Create provincial curricula in high schools which include courses in aboriginal history. 

Establish a separate prison ombudsman's office to deal exclusively with incarcerated aboriginals. 

Launch a fully-funded, national program to reduce the rate of diabetes among Indian people, which is twice the rate of other Canadians. 

Focus on children. Tear down crappy schools on reserves and build new ones. Bring down the unacceptably high mortality rates. And suicide rates among youth, six times higher than among non-aboriginal young people.

On the day this week that the Truth and Reconciliation report was issued, a group of young Indian activists added Ojibwe names to the street signs of four mid-Toronto streets. Symbolic perhaps. But symbols are important; they mean something. Adding original Ojibwe names to a couple of streets signs reminds us that the aboriginal  people were here first.

They are still here.

CROSS LAKE, Canada A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in a February 1940 archive photo. A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to "cultural genocide," a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system found on June 2, 2015. The residential school system attempted to eradicate the aboriginal culture and to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream Canada, said the long-awaited report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

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