In December, one year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to fully implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation commission, he proclaimed that work is underway on 41 of 45 “calls to action” intended to address a legacy of abuse of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
VICE News spent over a month trying to get details on what progress, exactly, has been made. At first, the government stalled. Ultimately, it declined to make the whole list public.
Instead, it itemized nine actions that is has started — everything from pledging to enact legislation that would protect Indigenous languages to launching an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The ministry said in early January that the full list would be published on their website “shortly,” although it has yet to appear.
Among the list of work Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada claims to have kicked off:
- an overhaul of the federal program that funds child protection on reserves, but which critics say fails to address discriminatory underfunding for Indigenous children.
- Supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — a document it has yet to actually sign.
- A settlement with survivors of residential boarding schools
“I just have to say that we’re working as fast as we can,” Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told VICE News, after a “But a lot of it is like turning around a big ocean liner.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the trauma inflicted by Canada’s residential school system through the testimony of its survivors. The system sought to “kill the Indian in the child” by isolating them from their families, forbidding them from speaking their languages, and subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse. As many as 6,000 children are estimated to have died at the schools. The legacy of broken families and abuse is linked to this day to high rates of drug and alcohol consumption and suicide. Just last week, First Nations leaders called on the government to do more after two young girls committed suicide in the Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t [make the full list public], if they truly are taking sincere action on it then why not be accountable to Canadians and most importantly, to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples?” Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, told VICE News.
“Reconciliation requires transparency and an open dialogue and when you have government locking itself down and making claims that it’s not prepared to substantiate or to engage Indigenous peoples in then that’s stepping away from reconciliation, not towards it.”
“They were probably scrambling because they haven’t started work on any of the calls to action. That’s pretty obvious to me now,” NDP Indigenous Affairs critic Romeo Saganash told VICE News.
In her interview with VICE News, Bennett played up the work that has been done.
“This is a very big project for Canada and I’m excited by it, and the reason I’m excited is that everybody is trying to help — even the critics. Other than a few, the critics aren’t saying, ‘what are you doing?’ the critics are saying ‘you’re not going fast enough.’ But we have to get this right.”
Here is a fact check of the action the government says it has taken:
Government of Canada: “We are overhauling First Nations Child and Family Services in partnership with First Nations.”
This claim covers the first five calls to action in the commission’s final report, which relate to the child welfare system. However, critics including Blackstock have pointed out that the government has failed to implement Jordan’s Principle, which is call to action number three, and which states that all children on reserve should have the same access to health care as those off reserve.
The 2016 budget committed $8.4 billion, over five years, to improve infrastructure, social services, and education on-reserve. The government says this will go a long ways to closing the funding gap between reserves and non-Indigenous communities, but critics say the government has still failed to remedy discriminatory under-spending on children who live on reserve, which is a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation report, and has ignored two compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on the matter.
“We launched the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.”
The government launched the long-anticipated inquiry last August, and is set to begin hearings in the coming months, although some relatives of those missing and murdered women worry that it doesn’t go far enough.
“[We] supported, unequivocally, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
The Truth and Reconciliation report specifically calls on the government to adopt the UN declaration and, while the government iterates it is supportive of the document, they’ve announced no actual plans to sign it. Last week, Trudeau was surprised when a request for a selfie turned into a question from two activists about the declaration. Trudeau said he supported it and then got the hell out of there.
“Canada and the survivors of five boarding schools not included in the [Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement], reached a settlement agreement.”
The government did, in fact, reach a $50 million settlement agreement with survivors of five boarding schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, ending a lawsuit on the matter.
“Canada has announced it will establish a National Council for Reconciliation.”
The council has yet to be announced but, in December, the prime minister announced he will form an interim board to start work on establishing that council — though he provided no timelines.
“[Canada] is providing $10 million in funding to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation”
The government announced the money last month.
“[Canada] committed to enacting an Indigenous Languages Act.”
While Ottawa has committed to the legislation, which is supposed to protect, preserve, and enhance Indigenous languages, but no legislation has been introduced as of yet.
“The Government of Canada is working with First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit leadership on options for changing the Oath of Citizenship…the Discover Canada citizenship study guide…[and] a more inclusive version of the settlement guide for newcomers.”
The TRC’s call for an overhaul of Canada’s immigration policies, Bennett’s office says, is in the works. Her office says a new citizenship study guide will be out this year, while the new immigration settlement guide is expected to be released in 2018.
With files from Brigitte Noel