A need for action on reconciliation | Winnipeg Free Press

Oct. 03, 2023

By: Harold Calla | Winnipeg Free Press

Each year, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation prompts us to take stock of the progress we are making, as a country, on the journey towards reconciliation. Often this progress — or the lack of it — is measured by counting how many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action have been implemented since they were tabled in 2015. But we can also consider how Canadians’ opinions have changed over time.

Some signs are encouraging. The latest Confederation of Tomorrow survey finds that seven in 10 Canadians believe that individuals like themselves have a role to play in bringing about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This figure has increased slightly since the annual survey began five years ago.

As well, Canadians are also almost twice as likely to believe that governments have not gone far enough to advance reconciliation than they are to say that they have gone too far.

I’m encouraged that a majority of both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians continue to be optimistic, according to the survey findings, that meaningful progress toward reconciliation will happen in their lifetime.

At the same time, despite the recent news about the discovery of the unmarked graves of children on the sites of former residential schools, familiarity among Canadians with this part of our history has not increased. This year, three in five Canadians say they are at least somewhat familiar with the history of residential schools, the same proportion as in 2021.

Younger adults are a little more likely to express some familiarity, which may reflect changes to the school curriculum in response to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the fact that overall awareness among Canadians has not progressed suggests that further efforts or new approaches to teaching this history, both in the classroom and in other settings such as within professional associations, are needed.

The Confederation of Tomorrow survey also asked Canadians about barriers to reconciliation. Notably, 80 per cent of respondents — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians — said that inadequate Indigenous control over our lands and resources is a barrier to reconciliation. Addressing this barrier must be a priority for our country’s collective actions and investments in the coming months and years.

Respondents were asked what the word “reconciliation” means to them — in an open-ended format so participants could answer in their own words. The most common ways in which Canadians think about “reconciliation” is in terms of an apology or making amends, getting along better, and acknowledgment or acceptance of responsibility. However, close to four in 10 did not offer any response to this question.

It may not be that easy a question to answer. But one thing is clear to those of us who are very familiar with the legacy of colonialism: reconciliation is not just about words. It requires action.

Saying sorry is not the end of the process, it is the start. Canada needs to act, and needs to invest in reconciliation. Doing so will pay dividends for all Canadians. Economic reconciliation means unlocking the Indigenous economy and when that happens, it will be a major driver of the national economy.

If Canada’s growth strategy includes empowering the Indigenous economy, we will all benefit. And it has become increasingly clear that the country cannot afford to not act on this. For example, Canada’s economy relies heavily on natural resource extraction, but these projects cannot move forward without Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) from impacted Indigenous communities. Success happens when Indigenous communities are full partners in such projects, both as decision makers and economic beneficiaries.

Failing to act also means the cost of the poverty created by Indigenous economic exclusion will continue to rise exponentially, something Canada can ill-afford.

Addressing an unsettling gap in awareness and understanding can help bring about the action needed. The survey shows us that the biggest gap between the views of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians around barriers to reconciliation relates to the lack of knowledge about Indigenous culture and history: 45 per cent of Indigenous people see this as a major barrier to reconciliation, compared to only 26 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians. This finding points to a fundamental area where more work needs to be done.

There are ample ways and opportunities to learn more about the failed colonial system and the continuing harms of the Indian Act on Indigenous Peoples. We’re especially reminded of this today, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — also known as Orange Shirt Day.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is about building awareness around the history of the residential school system and the harms it brought to Indigenous communities for over a century. Learning and understanding this history is a key part of advancing reconciliation.

Each of us has our own journey to undertake on the path to reconciliation. This recent survey points to the many barriers — from social inequalities and stereotypes to a lack of control over land and resources — that we must work together to overcome on that pathway. Doing so means healing and brighter futures, not just for Indigenous Peoples, but for all Canadians.

Harold Calla is the executive chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board.