In 2015, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published a landmark report detailing the depths of destruction the residential school system wrought on Indigenous families, communities and children — and the legacies left in the wake of these state-sponsored cruelties.
The report also told the government what to do to make things right.
With 94 Calls to Action, the TRC laid out the steps they said governments need to take to help Indigenous communities heal from these harms, to weed out the institutionalized inequalities that Indigenous people grapple with to this day.
“The Calls to Action really are the survivors’ workplan for the country,” said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Back in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted the TRC report and committed himself to implementing every Call to Action.
“We will, in partnership with Indigenous communities, the provinces, territories, and other vital partners, fully implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said at the time.
“The Government of Canada is committed to walking a path of partnership and friendship with Indigenous peoples.”
Some of the calls have since been implemented, including one that implored governments to establish a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. That solemn day of remembrance is now celebrated on Sept. 30 every year.
Other Calls to Action, however, have yet to be realized. Here’s where things stand so far.
Some progress is being made, advocates say
The federal government has shown a willingness to try to implement the Calls to Action that fall under their jurisdiction, according to University of Manitoba professor Niigaan Sinclair, whose father, Murray Sinclair, chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The federal government — good, bad, great, ugly, whatever you want to say about it — at least they’re (taking) action,” he said.
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He pointed to a number of bills passed in the last few years as evidence of this.
The Indigenous Languages Act, which is aimed at restoring and maintaining fluency in Indigenous languages, was passed in 2019 in response to Call to Action 14. The government also appointed Canada’s first Commissioner of Indigenous Languages last year — that was Call to Action 15.
The federal government enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act into law last year, which puts them on a track toward fulfilling Call to Action 43. Bill C-92, which received Royal Assent in 2019, empowers Indigenous communities to reclaim jurisdiction over their child and family services.
“I’m not saying these are great bills, but at least they’re action and at least there’s movement,” Sinclair said.
“The provincial governments are the real problem in terms of the implementation of the TRC calls action.”
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For example, Indigenous communities, in theory, have the power to reclaim jurisdiction over child and family services, Sinclair said. But in practice, the underfunding of any First Nations-led child and family services means that some children might in fact be better served in the provincial systems that have more funds to support them.
“Those kids are handed back to their First Nations, (and) the provinces go, ‘well, here’s the kid, but we’re not giving you the money,’” Sinclair explained.
Multiple Calls to Action call on government to address the chronic underfunding of Indigenous services, particularly ones for children. A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling from September 2019 found the federal government “willfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserve through the underfunding of services.
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In January of this year, the government committed to set aside $40 billion to compensate First Nations children harmed by Ottawa’s underfunding of child and family services on reserve, as well as on reforming the current system.
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It is setting aside $20 billion to compensate Indigenous children and their family members, and another $20 billion will be earmarked for funding services for Indigenous kids.
“There is some progress there. But is the work complete? No, it is not complete,” Blackstock said.
“We’re not at a place where the discrimination has ended or that we can say that it won’t happen again.”
Governments must step up their efforts: advocates
While advocates acknowledge some progress is being made, some of them say there are a number of areas where government work on the Calls to Action — across multiple jurisdictions — is falling short.
Looking at the year ahead, Blackstock’s first priority, she said, is to “end all the inequalities for First Nations, Metis and Inuit children” — a priority that is echoed across multiple Calls to Action.
“Why is it that these kids aren’t being treated fairly, and we’re thinking about hosting the Olympics? For Pete’s sake, we can’t afford the Olympics if we aren’t treating children fairly,” Blackstock said, referring to a bid to bring the games to Vancouver in 2030.
While addressing the outstanding funding gaps remains a key priority for Blackstock, so too is ensuring there are adequate funds to help communities identify the children found in unmarked graves.
The TRC’s final report found there were at least 4,100 deaths at residential schools across Canada. In recent years, using ground penetrating radar technology, Indigenous communities across Canada have been leading searches of residential school sites.
So far, more than 1,300 suspected graves have been found.
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Calls to Action 71 through to 76 focus on missing children and burial information. In 2019, the government invested $33.8 million over three years to implement these calls.
Should the government adequately fund these efforts, Blackstock said, it would help to provide “dignity and restoration” to Indigenous families.
“Our kids are still dreaming of a clean glass of water… same with trying to get equitable services in education, and health, and other things that people take for granted,” Blackstock said.
“It’s such an indignity to the survivors to see their grandchildren suffer, and then when we look at the children in the unmarked graves, there are so many indignities that continue to be left with that.”
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It’s not only the federal government that has areas for improvement. Sinclair said the provinces are laggards behind the federal government when it comes to holding up their end of efforts to implement the TRC Calls to Action.
“It’s pretty stark how the provincial governments are just ambivalent about the whole thing,” he said.
For example, he pointed to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. While the federal government has implemented this Call to Action, few provinces have followed suit. Of the territories, only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have declared Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday.
Of the provinces, only Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick have done so. Some other provinces are in open discussions about establishing Sept. 30 as a holiday.
Actioning the TRC’s remaining Calls to Action
When various levels of government fail to implement the Calls to Action, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians alike are impacted, according to Sinclair.
“The TRC calls are designed to address public and private institutions and to bring them to a point of reconciliation. Indigenous peoples have already been in a state of reconciliation for forever,” he explained.
But when the Calls to Action aren’t fully implemented, systemic changes in education systems and workplaces aren’t made — and non-Indigenous Canadians are in “dire need” of this education, training and support, Sinclair said.
“I would say the biggest impact of the failure of the provinces — and all governments in the country, but particularly the provinces — has been the impact on Canadians,” he said.
“Because it’s Canadians that continue to be ignorant, Canadians that continue to be confused on the issue of consultation, for example. Canadians, they don’t understand that reconciliation is about all of us. It’s not an Indigenous issue at all.”
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But in order to push all levels of government to act on this issue, Canadians need to keep the pressure on. As evidence of this, Blackstock pointed to the momentum that was built after the unmarked graves of 215 children were found in Kamloops, B.C., in May of last year.
“All that public and pressure and engagement, that led to more Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action being implemented within six weeks of the discovery of the children in Tk’emlúps than Canada had done in the previous six years,” she said.
“So that, to me, seems to be the antidote to the inertia.”
Blackstock called on Canadians to demand more action from their representatives at various levels of government — whether it be through sending politicians the Calls to Action, demanding these calls be implemented, or wearing an orange shirt on Sept. 30.
At the end of the day, the impact of this issue goes beyond any push for policy. Blackstock said it’s about ensuring a new generation of Indigenous children doesn’t face the same pain as the generation that came before them.
“These are children. They only have one childhood,” Blackstock said.
“Canada can’t leave another generation behind.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
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