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The federal government announced late last year it would spend $40 billion to reform the child welfare system on First Nations reserves and compensate children and families for harm they suffered from the system. The money would settle court cases and Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decisions.

The Crown-Indigenous Relations minister, Marc Miller, called it “the largest settlement in Canadian history.” A First Nations advocate interviewed on CBC News Network called it “not enough.”

Characterizing $40 billion as not enough underlines how complicated it will be to accomplish reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission — established in 2008 to expose the impacts of residential schools on Indigenous peoples — defined reconciliation as a process of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.” Its final report lists 94 “calls to action” and implies if they’re all completed reconciliation will occur. CBC News launched a website, Beyond 94, to track progress on the calls to action. In September it listed 13 as “complete,” 62 “in progress” and 19 not started.

Some calls to action are ambiguous. It’s inevitable there will be disagreements about whether they have been accomplished.

One calls on the federal government to “provide sufficient funds for Aboriginal language revitalization and preservation.” Another asks for “progress on closing the gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in a number of health indicators….” Nebulous words such as “sufficient” and “progress” are invitations to disagree.

It takes two requirements to know whether a goal is reached: a benchmark and a milestone.

  • A benchmark describes success. For a business, if its goal is to be the leading company in the industry, “leading” might mean having a 30% market share or selling a million widgets
  • The milestone is the time clock — the date when the goal must be reached, for example, selling a million widgets by December 31, 2024

Benchmarks and milestones promote consensus. Either the company sold a million widgets by the end of 2024, or it didn’t.

When the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous publics agree it’s been achieved, then reconciliation will have happened. Polls, however, show reconciliation is a long way off.

In a 2021 national poll by the Environics Institute….

  • 43% said government actions “in trying to advance reconciliation” have not gone far enough
  • 24% said government actions have been about right, and 20% said they have gone too far (14% had no opinion)

In a Nanos Research poll in May this year….

  • 29% said the federal government had done a poor job on “truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples”
  • 35% said an average job
  • 30% a good job (6% had no opinion)

Importantly, Environics found indigenous peoples (60%) “are much more likely than non-
Indigenous people to say that governments have not gone far enough to advance reconciliation.”

Canadians support reconciliation efforts, but reconciliation remains a low priority.

In a pre-federal election poll in 2019, Abacus Data asked Canadians to select three issues (among 17) that would be “most important impacting your vote.”

  • In first place, 35% named the cost of living as one of the three. In last place came “achieving reconciliation with Indigenous people” (5%)

Leger asked Canadians in June this year, “What is the number one issue facing Canada today?” Just 1% named “indigenous reconciliation” while 51% said inflation.

There is more support for specific parts of reconciliation than for the general concept. A Research Company poll in 2021 asked, “Thinking about reconciliation, how important are each of the following ideas and goals to you?”

  • 89% said ending drinking water advisories in FirstNations communities is very or moderately important
  • 86% said taking steps to end bias against IndigenousCanadians in the justice system is very or moderately important
  • 84% said investigating all unmarked gravesites near former residential schools

Another reason reconciliation will be a long journey is that Canadians have grown steadily more complacent about the problems of Indigenous people. In 1968 in a Gallup poll, 27% said the government treats Indigenous people well. The share saying treated well rose to 32% in 1989 (Gallup), 39% in 1991 (Gallup), 62% in 2013 (an Ipsos poll), and 55% in 2020 (Ipsos).

In August this year the Angus Reid Institute asked, “What best describes the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people?”

  • 44% said improving, 13% said worsening and 35% said staying about the same (8% were unsure)

Canadians also are equivocal about investigating the residential schools. In an Angus Reid Institute poll in August, 58% agreed “the harm from residential schools continues, and further investigations are needed.” But 42% thought “enough attention has been paid to residential schools — it’s time to focus on the future.”

Campaigns and protests can succeed without milestones but not without benchmarks. Consider the difference between Mahatma Gandhi and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests.

In 1930 Gandhi led India’s momentous salt march. His followers protested the British Empire’s controls on salt, a vital part of Indians’ diet that Britain taxed heavily and banned Indians from making. Gandhi also called for independence from the British Empire. After a year of Gandhi-led marching, the British relented on salt. But India didn’t gain independence till 1947.

The American journalist Joe Nocera recalls that the Occupy Wall Street protestors “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations but never got beyond their own slogans.” It’s not enough to point out what you don’t like, he said. “You need a clear idea of what you want instead.”

Marc Zwelling is the founder of The Vector Poll™ (www.vectorresearch.com) and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies (Wiley, 2012) and Ideas and Innovation For Dummies (Wiley, 2021).

In my third year at the University of Toronto, I remember sitting in a small lecture hall at Emmanuel College for a Canadian poetry course. There, I discovered words that have stayed with me, from an aptly named poem called “Can. Lit”, written by Earle Birney. I turned to my old copy of a Margaret Atwood-edited anthology to read his final lines today: “it’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted”.

I’ve always been fascinated by these words, tying them into William Lyon Mackenzie King’s quip that if some countries have too much history, Canada “has too much geography”. A theme of Canadian literature is that our environment is not necessarily a menace, but its emptiness, its vastness, its cold and unforgiving nature are threats that can infect the mind.

It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.

I think more accurately, it’s only by our deliberate refusal to see the truth about the ghosts we murdered. Across the quad from that lecture hall, a gateway arch reads “THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE”.

We need to speak the truth more frankly than ever, to refuse to look away.

The truth is Canada committed genocide. The systematic erasure of Indigenous culture and language was deliberate. Government policy infamously sought to “kill the Indian in the child”. We knew children ran away from residential schools and perished in the cold wilderness.

Now we also all know that their little bodies were buried in mass graves behind the school yard. But we’ve always known this. People knew it at the time. The reports written over the years, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s, say there are more mass graves out there. Probably 4000 or more children’s bodies are hidden away underground, taken out back like refuse by the nuns, priests, bureaucrats and caretakers who ran residential schools.

Michael de Adder drew a comic this week that nailed the point better than words: a schoolhouse façade, a concentration camp behind it.

We often wonder how the guards left work and returned for suppertime in 1940s Poland, Czechia, Germany; now, we should equally wonder about the Canadians who finished burying bodies and then went to their child’s hockey game in Kamloops, Sault Ste Marie, The Pas – Canadian towns like yours and mine, within many of our lifetimes.

Intergenerational trauma has been talked about, the impact felt by the generations raised by parents who had suffered such profound abuse, physical and sexual assault, neglect, isolation, the suppression of language and culture, forcible removal from family. Now we need to also expand that term to mean the families who were left wondering where their daughter had gone, never having closure, the stuff of the traumatic scenes on mystery and cop TV shows.

The outpouring of grief this week, the evocative images of little shows at town halls, of teddy bears at the flame on Parliament Hill can make us choke up.

But it’s action we need.

An end, once and for all, to the intergenerational government policy that Indigenous peoples should be second-class citizens on their own land. If North York had a boil-water advisory, it would be a scandal if it wasn’t fixed in days. First Nations reserves live with boil-water advisories for decades, to this day. Fix that. Improve education, with Indigenous educators forming curricula, with schools built by Indigenous contractors on their land. Reform the curriculum for everyone else to teach our real legacy. Continue nascent efforts to impede Aboriginal law into our systems. Recognize that Canada has not only always been multicultural, but also multinational.

Ensure Indigenous Canadians are empowered and supported to lead the change their communities need themselves. That’s an imperative of reconciliation: reclaiming power and agency. A number of years ago, a colleague accused me of not having “done the work” to understand Indigenous issues. I didn’t say so at the time — (and why defend myself by saying that I’d been interested, if that’s the right word, since I was a child in these issues, I’d made a small contribution in the education sphere of influence I had at the time, what does that prove) — but the reality is none of us have done enough, and the real work we need to do as settlers is to amplify and ally with Indigenous peoples themselves, to empower them to lead the solutions they champion.

This week, America confronted the legacy of the race massacre in Tulsa, the war-like destruction of Black Wall Street in Greenwood, Oklahoma. Both our countries have original sins we must confront, and fix.

We are not haunted by our lack of ghosts; we are haunted by trying to bury them, rather than atoning for who killed the children. Because we did.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.