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Six years and a national holiday later, Indigenous elder wants more on 94 calls to action

This week, CityNews is taking a closer look at Indigenous issues leading up to Thursday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which is also known as Orange Shirt Day.
2021-08-31 remember me orange t-shirt
Orange t-shirt sold through Pass the Feather's Indigenous art site, IndigenARTSY. Photo/ Pass the Feather

It takes Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda a few seconds to reflect on the question − and wrap her mind around the answer. Or lack of an answer.

When asked to look back on the progress the Canadian government has made over the past six years to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, Commanda is tongue-tied at first.

As Canada prepares to recognize the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Thursday, the Algonquin elder’s hesitation says it all.

“What kind of progress? … There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the 94 calls to action from the First Nations perspective. I don’t really see any of the calls to action being fully implemented,” said Commanda, an Algonquin Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation.

“I think many of them were just basically, ‘pick and choose which ones to become a priority, and let’s do some kind of action on each of them so we can score brownie points and we keep our image. We bolster our image and our relationships with First Nations or Indigenous peoples.’

“But really, I mean, six years? Ninety-four? They should have all been implemented by now. All. Not only implemented but actioned.”

WATCH: The full reading of the Truth and Reconciliation Report in December 2015 (CPAC)

This week, CityNews is taking a closer look at Indigenous issues leading up to Thursday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which is also known as Orange Shirt Day.

It will be a day of reflection, mourning, and education for Commanda.

But she hopes Canadians across the country will reflect as well − on the living conditions in Indigenous communities, Canada’s history of residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, or the lack of access to clean water in several northern communities.

“What I will be thinking of are all those children who didn’t make it home,” she said. “The families, the communities, the nations who are grieving. I will be thinking of all residential school survivors. Those that are here, and their families as well.

“Trauma doesn’t go away.”

WATCH: The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls delivered its final report in 2019. Nigel Newlove with what the government says it will do about the recommendations.

Meanwhile, Chief Wllie Littlechild told CityNews that steps are being taken to work toward progress, like Bill C-15 being adopted.

“That was very significant, in my view, as a call to action. But I say it’s a work in progress, because we still have to do an equally important part, which is the national action plan, which calls on us to work together, as Indigenous peoples and governments and private industry, and anyone engaged in a discussion to work at it together to do a national action plan on how to implement the UN Declaration,” Littlechild said.

He also estimated that about nine or ten of the calls to action have been ‘answered’, while nearly two dozen are ‘stuck’. He remains encouraged but added that more work needs to be done and that it will take time.

“I’ve heard two guesstimates because it took us seven generations to get here, it may take seven generations to actually see true reconciliation happen,” he said. “I’m a little more optimistic myself. I hope and pray that it will be done much sooner than that.”

One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action was the creation of a national holiday, which Justin Trudeau’s federal government instated this year. The day is a statutory holiday for all federal employees and federally regulated workplaces.

Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec have not legislated the holiday provincially. In the Atlantic, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, and Labrador will not be observing the day at a provincial level either.

British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories are planning to observe the day.

Besides the national holiday, Ottawa followed through with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), provided funding for First Nations kids in care, and passed an Indigenous Languages Act.

But Indigenous lawyer and activist Pam Palmater says those are very small and incomplete victories that are not concrete − especially considering the six-year timeframe.

For instance, Palmater acknowledges the inquiry was a big step forward, but “where’s the plan to actually end the historic and ongoing genocide?” And while funding is always welcome, why is Canada “litigating against First Nation kids in foster care,” she asks.

“They tend to be focusing on the stuff that you can do by legislation, or law or policy, without the corresponding radical changes that are needed in the actions in terms of funding and policymaking,” said Palmater. “We could pass 100 bills tomorrow, that doesn’t mean the government’s going to live up to them.

“I want to see them finally end sex discrimination in the Indian Act. You would think that because technically, they pass legislation that the discrimination would have ended, but they haven’t registered the hundreds, thousands of First Nations women and children that should be registered or compensated for all of these years of discrimination.

“With things like housing, and money for housing and clean water on reserves, just don’t put a number on it, go ahead and do what needs to be done so that every household has access to clean water.”

Thursday’s day of reflection comes just months after the grim discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and 751 graves at the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Those discoveries triggered a reckoning, forced Canadians to face a lesser-known and darker reality of the country’s history, and sparked a national conversation unlike anything before.

Commanda says she is still waiting on the government to act in response to the discoveries. She believes the Sept. 20 federal election acted as a deflection for Canadians to forget about the unmarked graves and not hold officials accountable.

Indigenous issues and reconciliation took a backseat in the lead-up to Election Day. But Commanda is not letting up.

“What have you done?” said Commanda, who added the $600 million spent on the election could have been dedicated to Indigenous issues instead. “The Liberal government needs to do action, they have to speak, they have to take responsibility, and they have to hold those responsible for the deaths of our children, accountable.

“You can’t bury that truth anymore.”

For Palmater, there is a reason to be optimistic. She points to recent protests and movements like Idle No More and 1492 Land Back Lane as signs of positive change and societal awakening to Indigenous issues.

“It’s now part of something we talk about every day,” said Palmater. “You can’t find a day now without Indigenous headlines. And that pressure, that’s going to keep forcing them to do the change. So I have all the confidence and optimism in both Indigenous peoples and Canadians working together.

“Change doesn’t get made if we sit back … And that’s where I see the greatest amount of hope, because people are demanding change.”

-- with files from The Canadian Press 

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