This past week has been a challenging week for many. Not because of the usual pandemic woes or because the House of Commons has entered “silly season”; but because of the remains of 215 indigenous children found at one of Canada’s largest residential schools in Kamloops. This tragic discovery is forcing all Canadians to face the ugly and often uncomfortable truth of how Indigenous peoples are treated in Canada. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, over 4,100 children died while attending residential schools. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend these institutions that did not officially close until 1996.
Last week, Speaker Anthony Rota denied NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s request for an emergency debate on the remains found in Kamloops. Instead, the House of Commons agreed to a Liberal motion to hold a take-note debate on residential schools. The motion received unanimous consent from all parties and the consensus afterwards was simple: we need to do more to support Indigenous communities and reconciliation.
Take Note Debate
The take-note debate in Parliament marked a change in tone and showed a united front amongst all parties. The question on reconciliation moved from “how far do we need to go” to “how soon can we act”. In their speeches, each party leader stressed the need for action, but had different views of what action needed to be taken and how to move forward.
Agreement amongst the party leaders for increased support and concrete action on reconciliation is not surprising given that residential schools are a recognized national tragedy. This is a major change, however, for the Conservative Party and their leader Erin O’Toole. During the Harper years, a parliamentary secretary was forced to apologize for suggesting that residential school survivors needed a strong work ethic and not more compensation for their suffering. Even during the 2020 leadership race, O’Toole doubled down in supporting status commemorating Sir John A. Macdonald, despite his ties to residential schools.
During the debate, both the Conservatives and the NDP called on the government to accelerate efforts to investigate other likely unmarked graves and to account for children who died while in residential schools. This action has support from Indigenous communities including the elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River. In an open letter to the Prime Minister, Elected Chief Mark Hill wrote that “we must find all of our missing children. Six Nations is committed to working with Canada to bring healing to survivors and to honour the memory of so many little ones”. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also recommended supporting efforts to repatriate the bodies of children and create a National Residential School Student Death Registry in their 94 Calls to Action.
During the 2015 campaign, the Liberal Party promised to implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if elected. Then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair suggested that the promise to implement all the recommendations was not realistic. According to CBC, the government has fulfilled 10 recommendations with 24 solutions listed as underway. The remaining 60 have not been addressed.
Following the take-note debate last week, the government announced $27 million in funding to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools. The funding was originally announced in the 2019 budget as part of a $33.8-million commitment to be spent over three years to fund the National Residential School Student Death Registry. The Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations says the delay in providing the funding was due to the department working on a system to properly deliver it to First Nations communities. Now that the government is re-committed to reconciliation, what is the next step?
The news of these children’s unmarked graves follows Indigenous Peoples Day and the two-year mark since the Liberal government released the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Last week, the government announced their long-awaited MMIWG national action plan. The report is over 113 pages, and the government has laid out several plans to implement the 231 recommendations. This includes 23 short-term goals that are to be undertaken within the next 12 to 36 months. These goals include public awareness campaigns, a national task force to review and re-investigate unsolved files of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2+ people, and a national emergency number.
Beyond the MMIW action plan and the additional funding to locate and commemorate children of residential schools, parliamentarians have a number of bills before them that could help re-start reconciliation. Parliament has already agreed to fast track two bills: C-8, acknowledging treaty rights during the citizenship oath, and C-5, which creates a national day for reconciliation. The Senate is currently reviewing C-15, which would require the government to ensure laws are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). A similar bill was introduced last Parliament, but never made it into law because of political games in the Senate. Passing C-15 would show Canadians that the past week was more than just lip service and nice words. Passing C-15 would show real action and begin rebuilding the trust between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.
Though this will be a drop in the bucket compared to the challenges that face Indigenous communities, the discovery of these 215 children is only a starting point for many more uncomfortable conversations. It has also made Canadians reflect more solemnly on the tragic history Canada has with Indigenous peoples.