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National Indigenous Peoples Day: Responsibilities in a “Post- Reconciliation” Era

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Image courtesy of Delusion23
June 21, 2019

Today, June 21st is National Indigenous People’s Day, a day to recognize the different cultures and many contributions of Inuit, First Nations, and Métis people in Canada. While this is a celebratory occasion, filled with cultural events and activities for all ages, my thoughts are on other recent news headlines.

The recently released final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has used the term genocide to describe the continued use of violence against Indigenous women and the 2SLGBTQQIA community [1]. Only weeks earlier, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights released a statement saying that it now classifies the operation of the Residential Schools system as an act of cultural genocide, finally recognizing the severity of the loss of culture experienced by Indigenous peoples.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a speech on Missing and Murdered Indigenous / Women and Girls Image © User: Delusion23 Wikimedia Commons

News media and social media seem to be in an uproar trying to determine whether or not the term ‘genocide’ is appropriate for what Indigenous peoples in Canada have been experiencing for decades. With the first volume alone totalling over 700 pages, it is unlikely that many of the people reporting on or criticizing it have actually read the document. Yet, these initial judgements and commentaries play an important role in shaping Canadian opinion on the report’s findings.

The report’s recommendations are not unlike the 94 Calls to Action which have come to be a well- known part of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and the reconciliation process. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), part of the IRSSA, also used the term genocide to describe the Residential Schools System, which forcefully removed Indigenous children from their families and resulted in estimates of thousands of un- documented deaths. Many Canadians were also outraged by the use of this term then, rather than by the contents of the report.  

Meanwhile today, Bill C- 262, which would require Canada’s laws to fully align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”), continues to be blocked in the Senate. While adopting the bill would bring Canada closer to better protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, the bill itself cannot change perceptions Canadians still have regarding Indigenous rights.

Many Canadians believe that we are in a post- reconciliation era, a time where reparations have been made for past atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples. However, the continued violence outlined in the MMIWG report demonstrates that the effects of these systems continue to contribute to intergenerational trauma and existing statistics. As the aftermath of the report’s release continues to unfold, it is useful to reflect on what can be learned from the Settlement Agreement.

While the Agreement brought to light important truths and made steps towards decolonization through its recommendations, it failed to provide lasting and culturally- relevant support for Survivors. The models used for compensation in the agreement were western- oriented and did not adequately recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge and healing strategies. [2] The entire concept of reconciliation and reparation in the Agreement implies an end to the healing process, while Indigenous conceptualizations of healing describe this as a lifelong process, requiring a holistic approach to wellness which includes spiritual, mental, and physical health. [3] Funding for Indigenous- led healing programs was short- lived, despite their proven effectiveness in providing meaningful support for Survivors. [4] Many also found the process to be re-traumatizing. [5]

While it is tempting to blame these failures solely on the government, it is important to acknowledge that societal attitudes are what often dictate political decisions. For these reasons, all Canadians must reflect on the very real role that each of us play in ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples are honoured and protected. This is especially important as the use of the term ‘genocide’ continues to be criticized, and as the argument that the reconciliation process should have been ‘enough’ to address the traumas experienced by Survivors persists. We must recognize that these beliefs are not harmless – they fuel racism towards and the stigmatization of Indigenous communities.

It is all of our responsibility to critically read the MMIWG report, to educate ourselves on the policies that are affecting Indigenous peoples today (such as Bill C-262), and to vote. We must recognize that Indigenous peoples expend time and emotional labour to educate others about issues facing Indigenous communities and standing up for their rights. It is also the responsibility of all settler-Canadians to help relieve this burden by educating our family members, colleagues, and peers, and to listen to and elevate the voices of Indigenous people in our everyday lives. Through these actions, we can build a Canadian society that properly values Indigenous rights, which is something I hope to be able to celebrate on National Indigenous Peoples Days in the future.

[1] Ashley Prest, 2019, “Supports Needed for 2SLGBTQQIA,” Winnipeg Free Press, (June 2, 2019), Note: 2SLGBTQQIA refers to people who identify as two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and/or gender diverse or non-binary.

[2] Robyn Green, 2012, “Unsettling Cures: Exploring the Limits of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27 (1): 129–48.

[3] Lara Fullenwieder, 2017, “Settler Biopower: Accumulation and Dispossession in Canada’s Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement,” Settler Colonial Studies 8 (4): 422–427.

[4] John Cotter, 2014, “Ottawa to Cut Needed Program for Indian Residential School Victims: Sinclair,” The Canadian Press, March 28, 2014.

[5] Tracey Carr, Brian Chartier, and Tina Dadgostari, 2017, “‘I’m Not Really Healed … I’m Just Bandaged up’: Perceptions of Healing among Former Students of Indian Residential Schools,” International Journal of Indigenous Health 12 (1): 39- 54.