Politics Social Policy

National Forum on Reconciliation: Minister Carolyn Bennett’s speech marks 20th Anniversary of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

This month marks 20 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) put a new plan before governments and the public to renew the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canadian society. While the recommendations that mapped the changes possible quickly fell from view, neither the issues nor RCAP disappeared, as the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined earlier this year.

On November 2-4, 2016, a National Forum on Reconciliation was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba to mark the 20th anniversary of RCAP under the banner of ‘Sharing the Land, Sharing a Future’. Among the key speakers to attend was federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. The following is the transcript of her speech delivered to the Elders, leaders, youth, and honoured guests who attended the forum.

A National Forum on Reconciliation: Marking the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Speaking Notes for
the Honourable , Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
As delivered

November 2, 2016
Winnipeg Manitoba

Thank you all so much. This is so exciting actually. The day finally arrived. Thank you, Merci, Meegwetch, Qujanamiik, Nakumek, Marsee, Mahsi Cho.

You stated that the concepts such as terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery are factually, legally, and morally wrong. The report spoke truth and power. It has been said that once you know the truth you can’t un-know the truth. The Canadian embarrassment at our country’s history created a growing desire for change.

It is amazing to be able to acknowledge the significance of this 20th anniversary taking place here in the territories of Treaty One and in the homeland of the Metis people as well as the home to many Inuit people here in Winnipeg.

As we all know the roots of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers have been travelled by Indigenous people for thousands of years. The rivers represent the meeting point and thousands of years of community.

Thank you Marlene and Fred for your warm welcome and your leadership. As you know I’ve been looking forward to this ever since you presented the idea to me. And thank you Elder Marlene, and Elder Mary and Elder John for beginning this in an extraordinarily good way.

We look forward as was said not only for the dialogue and discussion but to the work that we will all get to do together as we go forward from this event. I think this conference represents a truly critical milestone on our journey of reconciliation as we work on the forum’s theme: sharing the land, sharing a future. The conversation and dialogue, discussions, and questions will all play a key role in advancing the vital work of renewal and healing, but also to tackling the tough questions and challenging us all to be better.

As Marlene and Fred know I was really hoping this conference would be truly disruptive in helping us to really have a look at what nation-to-nation means, what Inuit to Crown means and what it would look like if we were getting that right. I encourage you all to be disruptive. We don’t want the same old same old. We actually want to be shooting for where we need to be.

Je veux en particulier saluer le travail extraordinaire de Marlene et de Fred dans le cadre de CRPA. Marlene as you know was the co-director of research and Fred was the deputy director of research. I think as we see their snowflakes on their lapel, that they exemplify the motto of the Order of Canada “desiderantes meliorem patriam”. They desire a better country. They are national treasures.

Your ongoing efforts paid, and unpaid to further Indigenous rights have been shining an important light on these issues over the past 20 years and long before that- as successive Governments have been challenged to keep pace and demonstrate real change.

I think all of us today would like to acknowledge the Commissioners for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For the RCAP, the Co-Chairs René Dussault, Georges Erasmus and Commissioners Paul Chartrand, Peter Meekison, Viola Robinson, Mary Sillett, and the late Bertha Wilson, whom that you spoke so beautifully about.

For the TRC: Commissioners Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson and chair Senator Murray Sinclair.

Your reports were so credible because of the way that you listened to people and communities. As you know you set a gold standard in truth and engagement. People remind me that I need to dust off and read the report again wherever I go, because you listened to the people.

Commissions know that you have to get out and listen to people if you’re going to get this right. Il y a vingt ans le rapport de la CRPA était le premier de son genre. As the report came out, critics and Ministers alike had the common refrain, “RCAP had it right.” For the first time Canadians heard clearly and in depth about the history of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

For example, Canadians heard “after some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination from mutual respect and cooperation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms of coexistence with Aboriginal people.”

As Commissioners you provided a different version of Canadian history than the one taught in schools, from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 onward: a history of broken treaty promises of  the Indian Act and the policies of assimilation; of the suppression, even criminalization of Indigenous culture; and the horror of residential schools. The report was scathing. Your central conclusion was that the main policy direction pursued for more than 150 years first by colonial and then by Canadian governments had been wrong.

It was bold at a time when bold words were needed. You stated that the concepts such as terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery are factually, legally, and morally wrong. The report spoke truth and power. It has been said that once you know the truth you can’t un-know the truth. The Canadian embarrassment at our country’s history created a growing desire for change.

Le rapport était le premier à examiner les fondations de la guérison et la volonté d’entretenir une relation plus juste et honorable. The Commission’s co-chair, Georges Erasmus, saw the Commission as a beacon of hope for our collective peoples when he said “what an enterprise with which to enter the new millennium. What a wasteful burden to be able to leave behind and what possibilities of peace and harmony await if together we get to work now to realize this new national dream…”

My colleague at the time, the honourable Jane Stewart responded to RCAP with the gathering Strength Action Plan and a statement of reconciliation. When I read the Statement of Reconciliation I find it eerily familiar. For example it says, “Reconciliation is an ongoing process. In renewing our partnership we must ensure that the mistakes which marked our past relationships are not repeated.”

It seems like we’re still saying the same thing. The Gathering Strength Action Plan had four objectives to support the renewal: first to renew the Crown-Indigenous partnership and engage all possible partners so that the relationship will be a catalyst to better the lives of Aboriginal people in Canada. Second, to strengthen Aboriginal governance so that communities have the tools to guide their own destiny and to exercise their inherent right of self-government.

Third, to design a new fiscal relationship that provides a stable flow of funds in support of transparent and accountable community development ,and fourth to sustain the growth of strong healthy Aboriginal communities fueled by economic development and supported by a solid basic infrastructure of institutions and services.

Beyond these objectives, Minister Stewart also outlined the Crown’s commitment to this partnership was to work out solutions together beforehand instead of picking up the pieces after the fact, a commitment to negotiate rather than litigate, a commitment to communication, a commitment to meaningful consultation and a commitment to prompt action to address concerns before positions get too polarized to move.

In conclusion, she quoted a simple and profound statement of Chief Justice in the Delgumukw case. “Let us face it.We’re all here to stay.” I am here to say let’s face it, 20 years from now things had better be different. As Willy Littlechild said in the first meeting with the Prime Minister last December, “what we need is reconcili-action.” I hope by your silver 25th anniversary that we will be well on the way to sharing the land and sharing a future.

When I was a new Member of Parliament, RCAP exposed me in the Gathering Strength event to understand my total ignorance of this shameful, shameful history of our country. I remember the Gathering Strength event at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto. I remember the smudge ceremony. I’d never seen one before or knew what it was. I remember thinking, how long is this going to take? I remember thinking I was just mortified and embarrassed that I knew so little about it. I was 47 years old and a very good student and I knew nothing.

And, so, today we have an opportunity to look back over the past 20 years, take stock of our progress towards this, new national dream. The RCAP Commissioners were clear, writing “there can be no peace or harmony unless there is justice.” In May of 2006 the Residential School Settlement Agreement was signed by all parties including the late honourable Jim Prentice whose recent tragic passing shocked and saddened us all.

Twenty years later we’re not even close to being done. There has been some visible, concrete change, but too slowly. It’s always been clear that not acting is disrespecting all of the people who spoke with the Commissioners. Cynicism, passivity, despair are the results of nothing changing. We must look back and acknowledge our failures but we are also given the responsibility and the opportunity to look ahead.

IRSSA became the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history. This led to the 2008 apology by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a moral policy to forcibly remove children from their homes and into residential schools, a policy that has left a painful legacy and untold consequences in its wake. IRSSA also brought us the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the road map for reconciliation that is laid out in their calls to action.

Of the 94 truth and reconciliation commission calls to action, over 40 of them overlap with the calls from RCAP which is a clear sign that we haven’t moved far or fast enough. We still don’t even have the publication of a general history of Indigenous people that we can all agree on which was an RCAP recommendation. In fact in volume one it said, “the Government of Canada will commit to a publication of a general history of Aboriginal peoples of Canada in a series of volumes reflecting the diversity of nations to be completed within 20 years.”

It is 20 years now. I don’t think we have it. As RCAP said, “as we delved deeper, we came to appreciate the Commission’s unique opportunity to approach the relationship between Canada and First Peoples in a new way, holistically. We realized that the usual strategy, tackling the problems one at a time, independently, is tantamount to putting a band aid on a broken leg. Instead we propose a comprehensive agenda for change.”

Here we are at 20 years. Twenty years later we’re not even close to being done. There has been some visible, concrete change, but too slowly. It’s always been clear that not acting is disrespecting all of the people who spoke with the Commissioners. Cynicism, passivity, despair are the results of nothing changing. We must look back and acknowledge our failures but we are also given the responsibility and the opportunity to look ahead.

One of the things that inspires me every day is Christi Belcourt’s beautiful stained glass window over the members’ entrance which commemorates the 2008 apology. It is with the beautiful Ojibway word, Giniigaaniimenaaning, which is about looking forward. It means that we are thinking seven generations out, and we’re dealing with seven generations back.

We need to look forward in this next seven generations by listening to the youth as well as listening to wise women and Elders. This Friday will be one year since my swearing in ceremony. I’m proud to say that some important steps have been taken and I thank Claudette Commanda for making sure there was sage in my boots that day.

Dans ma lettre de mandat le Premier Ministre a indiqué qu’aucune relation n’est plus importante pour lui et pour le Canada que celle qu’il entretient avec les peuples autochtones, et je suis tout à fait d’accord avec lui. As you know as well one year ago in the mandate letter to every Minister he stated it’s time for a renewed nation to nation relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership.

That was huge in that it was a whole of government approach. This is not only the responsibility of one Minister. It’s the responsibility of every Minister and that is tough sledding in a government that has been so siloed forever and that’s the work we’re trying to do together. We are steadfast in our commitment to nation-to-nation, Inuit-to-Crown, government to government invoking what Georges Erasmus called the human underpinnings of a new relationship.

We have promised early signs of reconciliation by Canada’s 150th anniversary where we will celebrate a Year of Reconciliation. We have made some progress on the 94 calls to action of the TRC and 35 of them are well underway for the federal areas. The top priority was setting up the commission into the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

J’ai été honorée de participer à ce processus, but as we heard in the pre-inquiry, so many of the causes of that tragedy were there in the RCAP report, well there in the TRC. It’s a matter of we just need to get on and do this now.

We also know that in the recent budget, that we’ve begun to close those gaps that have been identified for so long, to address the needed changes, the calls for infrastructure changes from the original RCAP report.

As you know we made the historic investment of $8.4 billion to improve the conditions of Indigenous people in their communities. I was just at the Infrastructure Conference of the AFN. This funding is the $4.6 billion over five years to help with housing and water and waste water and education in First Nations and Inuit communities.

As the Finance Minister reminds me, wherever he gives a speech, the biggest most positive response is on drinking water on First Nations and the fact that everybody should be able to turn on the tap in this country and be able to drink from the tap. I believe that we will not be able to truly renew our nation to nation relationship until every family in every First Nation community in Canada is able to turn on the tap and drink the water.

Nous savons également maintenant qu’il est nécessaire d’offrir un Environnement d’apprentissage qui respecte leur culture. We need to close the shameful gap of 62% of Indigenous young adults on reserve not finishing high school compared to only 13% of non-Indigenous kids.We need to listen to the youth. When you listen to the youth it’s totally inspiring. What the youth want is language and culture. What the youth want is on the land programming and whether it’s the Inuit Youth Council or the Youth Council in Attawapiskat, the kids are asking for the same thing.

They want to have an attachment to the land. They want to know their language and culture and that is how they are going to succeed in education, in health outcomes and economic outcomes. They need a secure personal cultural identity that will lead to their resilience, their self-esteem and their sense of control over their lives. They need Indigenous pedagogy that is learning by doing.

We have to stop the colonial approach of having kids copy off blackboards at the front of a room. This is not working. The kids are learning physics by trying to get their canoe forward in a wind. The kids are learning biology by cleaning a fish. The kids are learning chemistry by using the brain of a deer and tanning the hides. It is so disturbing that we still have way too many classrooms in this country, teachers standing at the front reading off a clipboard.

None of us could do well that way. We need to get back to what was the Indigenous way which was learning by doing. Murray Sinclair has said reminding us of the RCAP legacy that we have described for you a mountain and we have shown you the path to the top and we call on you to do the climbing.

We need to speak the words of apology in humility and when those words are needed to start with the healing and shameful acts of the past.

But we also need to deal with all Canadians right now about the unacceptable level of racism in this country, that this is not going to work until we name it, until we deal with it and every Canadian is prepared to correct misinformation and correct the attitudes that are holding everyone back. I believe in acknowledging and repairing the injustices of the past, but also acknowledging and repairing the injustices of the present that we will mark an opportunity to look forward together towards the brighter future into the next 150 years of Confederation.

We need to bring all Canadians with us and this conference is a very important tool to help with that goal. La réconciliation s’adresse à tous les Canadiens. We need to be speaking to the 96% of Canadians who are non-Indigenous. We have to climb that mountain together. It is going to be really important for us to recognize some of the successes.

I think that with the RCAP push and hearing from the universities today, indigenizing universities is not going to be easy but we’re seeing it happen. Universities here in this city are really leading the way in terms of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing. We’ve got the commitment of all provinces and territories to change their curricula.

As the Elder said, we not only have APTN but we actually have mainstream media actually beginning to take note of these stories that are of injustice but also these stories of success. I hope that again in this fortunate position that I have as Minister and as Member of Parliament that every Canadian should have the advantage I have of new friends who are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.

You shouldn’t have to be a Member of Parliament to have this amazing window on what was this amazing culture and language before the settle arrived and to have those friends correct you as you go forward. That’s what friends do. It is so important that as you look to the subjects that have been chosen, the six themes of nation to nation, closing the gap, youth engagement, citizen engagement, powerful communities and healthy communities and moving to action, we will read the papers and we will learn from the thoughtful ideas and important work.

Together we’re going to have to work with all Canadians to do this work. It means next year this great party in my riding will include the men from the native men’s residence and traditional housing at the end of the street. We have to do this business of work together. We actually need the scholars to be asking the tough questions and putting really important solutions out on the table.

I was interested in reading in the nation-to-nation piece, the completing Confederation paper which was of the transitional governance project. If the history of Indigenous Crown relations teaches us anything, it is that as much as the Crown must honour its promises it cannot have more than an enabling and an accommodating role in Indigenous social, political and economic development.

This is not a call for benign neglect. Rather we urge federal provincial and territorial governments at the political and bureaucratic level to embark on their own critical self-examination of where their policies and actions continue to maintain the colonial mindset and hinder progress for Indigenous people and the creation of better long term relationships between Indigenous and other Canadians.

Next year as we celebrate Canada 150 and the Year of Reconciliation it is my sincere hope that we will have made progress, that the progress is in part because of the conversations we’ve had at this Forum. We have this year ahead where the four themes, one of them is reconciliation, one is youth, one is the environment, one is diversity. In some ways they’re all about reconciliation and that we have to take that work forward.

As Gord Downie said in his concert two weeks ago, we have 150 years behind us that we need to learn from and we’ve got 150 years ahead and we’d better just get to work. As on the day of the TRC ceremony in Ottawa in June of 2015 Hereditary Chief Ray Jones reminded us of the Gitxsan phrase “shed Dim Amma gauu dingu mel”, meaning the canoe must be up righted.

In closing I want to tell you a little story about a canoe I almost dumped. I had to do this interview for BBC Hard Talk which is well named and but thankfully I’d just come off the North Saskatchewan River in Batoche with a group of kids from La Loche. When I was asked by the interviewer why do you think this is a better time? Everybody has failed. Why do you think that this can be any better?

I said, when I was paddling with these kids from one of the challenged communities in our country yesterday, we hit this huge rock. We actually got into water so shallow we had to get out and walk the canoe through. But the current was with us and we got where we were going and we’re going to get it done this time. Thank you, Merci, Meegwetch, Qujanamiik, Nakumek, Marsee, Mahsi Cho.◉

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