Last October, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national event in Halifax. Over four days, courageous survivors of residential schools told their stories before several hundred people gathered in a large conference room. The abiding pain of loss was palpable: loss of childhood, family, language, culture, self-esteem, loss of trust in anyone or anything. The intergenerational impact was clear: such losses resulted in an inability to live as whole persons, leading to addictions, neglect of children, and a deep sense of helplessness.
I also heard positive stories: teachers who loved the children; students who looked after each other; resilient individuals and communities. There was laughter as well as tears, profound silences and vigorous applause for achievements. Commissioners listened carefully, treating everyone with dignity and compassion.
I departed humbly, hopeful for future reconciliation. Yet the same week as the Halifax event, KAIROS released a report exposing Canada’s failure to live up to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child with respect to First Nations children. According to the report, children in these communities consistently receive less funding for health, welfare and education than other children.
Later in October, the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency because of deplorable living conditions on the reserve. The government treated this call with total indifference until media attention drew a public outcry, shaming the minister of Aboriginal Affairs into action.
The current situation makes a mockery of the TRC’s work and all hopes for reconciliation. How can indigenous peoples have trust in Canadians unless Canadians, through their governments, make genuine, substantial efforts to rectify the present? Will Canada need another apology and commission 20 years hence because we have failed to change our ways?
Governments on all levels must stop the oppression. They must work together for radical change, upholding the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada signed on to in 2010. They must dust off the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and draw on the wisdom of those recommendations.
The road to true reconciliation will be long and arduous. The journey calls for respect, humility and an end to the racism that underlies the Indian Act and the attitudes of many Canadians. Reconciliation requires heartfelt, committed action by everyone. Will United Church people lead the way in urging change?
Rev. Margaret Sagar is a retired United Church minister in Terence Bay, N.S.
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