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This article was published 4/6/2015 (751 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BRANDON — In a country with a four-century history of making bad decisions in its relationship with its indigenous peoples, is it really surprising that Canada’s leaders would squander the opportunity to finally make a good one?
On Tuesday, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a summary of its findings following a six-year study of the nation’s residential school program. The commission concluded the schools were a key component of a national policy of cultural genocide, and made 94 recommendations aimed at both repairing the damage and putting Canada on a path toward reconciliation.
Among the commission’s recommendations are calls for improved health care, education and child welfare systems, protection of languages, justice reforms including changes in sentencing policy, a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the repudiation of controversial legal concepts.
Many demands are weighty and potentially costly, but there are also calls for funding for museums and archives, restoration of funding for the CBC, and improved education of lawyers, journalists and other professions regarding aboriginal issues.
Of the 94 recommendations, 70 can be implemented quickly if the political will exists. They are clear in both their language and objective, and would not be outrageously expensive to carry out compared to the cost of inaction.
Of the remaining 24 recommendations, eight demand action by organizations other than governments, while the other 16, which include the adoption of the UN Declaration and repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, require clarification and additional study as to their ramifications.
With that reality in mind, what are Canadians to make of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to implement any of the recommendations until after he’s seen the full report?
Six recommendations are aimed at locating the unmarked graves of children who died while attending residential schools. What possible justification is there for obstructing those efforts?
Two recommendations call for improved programs to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and better treatment for those suffering from FASD, while another three recommend culturally relevant programming for aboriginal inmates and those on parole. Is any of that objectionable?
Recommendation 81 calls for the erection of a residential schools monument in Ottawa. With the Harper government determined to build a monument to victims of communism outside of Canada, how can it defend not erecting a reminder of the genocide that occurred within our borders?
In all, the prime minister could have easily embraced more than 20 recommendations. He could have announced the study of several others and placed the remainder in abeyance pending receipt of the commission’s final report in the fall.
If he had done that, he would have been praised by many for moving the nation toward reconciliation with its indigenous peoples. By stubbornly refusing to take even the smallest step, however, he has reinforced many of the worst perceptions of him and, incredibly, further poisoned his government’s relationship with aboriginal peoples.
For someone who boasts of his leadership skills and prowess as a maker of good decisions in challenging circumstances, it is a stunning blunder that could have consequences extending far beyond this fall’s election.
The prime minister is not alone in mistake-making, however. Just hours after the release of the TRC’s recommendations, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced his party’s "unwavering support" for all 94 recommendations, and called on the government "to take immediate action to implement them."
Trudeau was apparently unaware that, as explained above, several of the recommendations cannot even be implemented by government. Others are too vague in their language, or their consequences too unpredictable, to be adopted without risk of yielding results that would cause more harm than good.
While Trudeau tried to score political points by impulsively endorsing all 94 recommendations, NDP Leader Mulcair sought to benefit without specifically supporting any of them. He says his party "will consult with indigenous people and establish which of the recommendations require the most pressing attention," but he must know that forcing aboriginals to choose which recommendations they would settle for implicitly undermines the credibility of the Commission’s findings and makes reconciliation more difficult to attain.
Tuesday was a day that called for compassion, generosity and honesty. Most of all, it required principled, thoughtful leadership. We didn’t get it. The reconciliation process cannot begin until we do.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.