Robin V. Sears

Policy - - In This Issue - Robin V. Sears

In­dige­nous Peo­ples—Our Painfully Slow Path to Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

In his lead­ers’ speech to the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly in Septem­ber, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau used the bulk of his rhetor­i­cal real es­tate to ad­dress Canada’s ef­forts to re­dress the sys­tem­atic “hu­mil­i­a­tion, ne­glect and abuse” of the coun­try’s In­dige­nous peo­ple. As vet­eran po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Robin Sears writes, the tra­jec­tory of the re­la­tion­ship since Trudeau first made it a gov­ern­ing pri­or­ity shows just how com­pli­cated progress can be.

Jus­tice—now Sen­a­tor—Mur­ray Sin­clair asked me, as he was fi­nal­iz­ing his mon­u­men­tal re­port of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion on the hor­ror of Canada’s res­i­den­tial schools, if I knew what it would take to suc­cess­fully launch a cred­i­ble path to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

My stum­bling re­sponse was some­thing like “Uh, for­give­ness, apol­ogy, ac­cep­tance, I guess, uh…” He let the in­ad­e­quacy of my re­sponse hang in the air be­tween us, to drive home the point

that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was too of­ten a clichéd term that didn’t re­ally have much con­tent or authen­tic­ity.

“No,” he fi­nally said, “that comes later. First, it is ac­knowl­edge­ment that our spir­i­tu­al­ity—abo­rig­i­nal spir­i­tu­al­ity—is the equal of yours. With­out that it is just a cam­paign for slow as­sim­i­la­tion.” The power of his wis­dom echoed in my head for days. As Miles Richardson, a re­spected Haida Gwaii leader, put it, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion must be­gin with the re­spect that helps cre­ate a space in which the first steps to­ward heal­ing can take place.

It is a long, frus­trat­ing jour­ney from to­day— ad­dress­ing cen­turies of bro­ken prom­ises—to achiev­ing even the most ba­sic vis­i­ble, sus­tain­able, and most im­por­tantly, be­liev­able, im­prove­ment in health, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and rights for Canada’s In­dige­nous peo­ples.

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can­not have any real value or sus­tain­abil­ity if it does not start from a gen­uine con­vic­tion about the equal­ity of each part­ner, their val­ues and their his­tory. More than any­one, Sin­clair has helped Cana­di­ans to be­gin that jour­ney. When we look back on the progress we will have hope­fully made on build­ing a new part­ner­ship, it will be Mur­ray Sin­clair’s elo­quence—of­fered in his truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion speeches— that we will see as day one.

The emo­tional power that Sin­clair brought to the mes­sage of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will have had the same im­pact as Martin Luther King’s Wash­ing­ton speech did on civil rights. But that speech was nearly 55 years ago, and two gen­er­a­tions later, the U.S. is en­dur­ing its lat­est erup­tion of racist pol­i­tics. Therein lies the chal­lenge fac­ing the Trudeau gov­ern­ment—and ev­ery Canadian gov­ern­ment which has made any gen­uine ef­fort on In­dige­nous is­sues.

It is a long, frus­trat­ing jour­ney from to­day—ad­dress­ing cen­turies of bro­ken prom­ises—to achiev­ing even the most ba­sic vis­i­ble, sus­tain­able, and most im­por­tantly, be­liev­able, im­prove­ment in health, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and rights for Canada’s In­dige­nous peo­ples. The seeds well planted to­day will de­liver po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit only to a fu­ture gov­ern­ment.

Sec­ondly, bad news sells news­pa­pers. Even small tragedy trumps big tri­umphs in news and there­fore pub­lic sen­ti­ment. The Trudeau gov­ern­ment has made mea­sur­able progress in im- prov­ing wa­ter safety on Canadian re­serves, for ex­am­ple, but the fail­ures re­main in hun­dreds of com­mu­ni­ties, im­pact­ing thou­sands of fam­i­lies. That’s the news. The decades of mis­trust and bro­ken prom­ises make even the most hope­ful steps for­ward as frag­ile as a cease­fire ne­go­ti­a­tion. The col­lapse of the es­sen­tial re­source de­vel­op­ment and rev­enue shar­ing talks be­tween Ottawa and the AFN is the lat­est sad proof.

Ac­cess to com­plex health­care for In­dige­nous chil­dren has im­proved more in the past 24 months than in the pre­vi­ous 24 years. What was the big news story on in­dige­nous health in the last month? The gov­ern­ment lawyers spend­ing vast sums to deny a First Na­tions child ac­cess to med­i­cally nec­es­sary care.

The ele­phant in the room, for those who work on and care about progress in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, is the dread­ful fed­eral depart­ment. Once known as In­dian Af­fairs, later Abo­rig­i­nal and then In­dige­nous Af­fairs, In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Canada is enor­mous, stum­bling, in­com­pe­tent, and full of what could be del­i­cately de­scribed as “pro­fes­sional con­flicts of in­ter­est.” The Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to im­ple­ment, 20 years later, the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Royal Com­mis­sion on Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs to break apart the depart­ment may be a good first step to re­cov­ery. In the de­part­men­tal split, Carolyn Ben­nett be­came min­is­ter of Crown In­dige­nous Re­la­tions and North­ern Af­fairs, while Jane Philpott be­came min­is­ter of In­dige­nous Ser­vices. As it hap­pens, both min­is­ters are med­i­cal doc­tors.

Un­til to­day, hun­dreds of INAC pub­lic ser­vants have spent thou­sands of hours ex­amin- ing wa­ter pu­rifi­ca­tion com­pli­ance or­ders, in­di­vid­ual pa­tient health re­im­burse­ment claims, and the ex­pen­di­tures of in­di­vid­ual First Na­tions re­serve band lead­ers. Pub­lic ser­vants at the up­per mid-level of this vast, multi­bil­lion dol­lar pub­lic em­pire serve as cash ledger book­keep­ers, per­form­ing func­tions done in most small busi­nesses to­day on mo­bile phone apps.

The list of frus­tra­tions that this gov­ern­ment has had in mov­ing the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agenda for­ward is nowhere more painful than in the stut­ter­ing launch of the Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women and Girls (MMIW) file.

Work on high-level strate­gic is­sues such as treaty im­ple­men­ta­tion and gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment health and ed­u­ca­tion agree­ments with In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions got pushed aside too of­ten. The di­vi­sion of the two de­part­ments at least en­sures that the new Crown-In­dige­nous Re­la­tions and North­ern Af­fairs depart­ment will have no ex­cuse for not mov­ing harder and faster on the higher-level chal­lenges. The list of frus­tra­tions that this gov­ern­ment has had in mov­ing the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agenda for­ward is nowhere more painful than in the stut­ter­ing launch of the Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women

and Girls (MMIW) file. Like the first round of the TRC—be­fore Mur­ray Sin­clair took over with a strong whip hand, a clear des­ti­na­tion and the path to get there—this in­quiry, too, has had squab­bling com­mis­sion­ers, dis­grun­tled and dumped staff, and loud and an­gry crit­ics in many places across the coun­try.

While the gov­ern­ment pays the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal cost for its poor launch, com­mu­ni­ca­tions fail­ures and peev­ish pub­lic de­fence of its work, the in­quiry is an in­de­pen­dent body which can­not be di­rected by the politi­cians it is dam­ag­ing. Only time will tell if a com­plete re-launch with new lead­ers and new man­date—as hap­pened with the TRC—is re­quired, or whether the in­quiry team is fi­nally able to right its ship them­selves. But, on all sides, time and pa­tience is rapidly wear­ing out.

The strug­gles over child in­dige­nous health and wel­fare ser­vices are per­haps the sec­ond-most frus­trat­ing dossier for the cham­pi­ons of change in the Trudeau gov­ern­ment. It, too, is dogged by the dif­fer­ence be­tween ex­pec­ta­tions of de­liv­ery by Ottawa and lim­i­ta­tions on the feds’ abil­ity to move more quickly, given that prov­inces, First Na­tions lead­ers and or­ga­ni­za­tions, and the health care sec­tor must all be aligned about so­lu­tions. Not sur­pris­ingly, they are not.

Ben­nett and her team have been suc­cess­ful in ne­go­ti­at­ing a set of re­gional and lo­cal agree­ments to im­prove child health and wel­fare ac­cess with the Man­i­toba Chiefs, with a se­ries of On­tario First Na­tions who will re­ceive fund­ing di­rectly. They’ve also struck a Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Char­ter in Bri­tish Columbia, bring­ing to­gether the feds, B.C. and the B.C. First Na­tions Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. More agree­ments are promised.

But there is a mostly un­ac­knowl­edged shadow over this file. It is the in­ter­sec­tion of large sums of money and some sup­pli­ers of foster care and other ser­vices off-re­serve, whose hunger for rev­enue quan­tity is not al­ways matched by their de­liv­ery of ser­vice qual­ity. Most trou­bling are some awk­wardly close re­la­tion­ships be­tween some sup­pli­ers, some In­dige­nous agen­cies set up to man­age the trans­fers and billings, and their lead­ers.

The gov­ern­ment has tried to fo­cus its spend­ing on the af­fected fam­i­lies di­rectly, on at­tempt­ing to im­prove lo­cal re­serve based care, and on by­pass­ing some of th­ese in­ter­me­di­aries. The an­gry re­ac­tion of those be­ing cut out has re­ceived the high­est level of me­dia at­ten­tion and po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thy. Ed John, one of the most re­spected First Na­tions lead­ers in the coun­try, has agreed to lead a new national ad­vi­sory group on child and fam­ily ser­vices for First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties. Lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the ad­vances in First Na­tions ed­u­ca­tion. Nowhere is the chal­lenge of de­liv­er­ing proof of real change for money spent more real than on this file. Some of the signs do seem en­cour­ag­ing: the gov­ern­ment has pledged to pump more than two bil­lion ad­di­tional dol­lars into In­dige­nous ed­u­ca­tion, and re­ceived a con­di­tion­ally pos­i­tive re­view from the Par­lia­men­tary Bud­get Of­fi­cer that they will be able to de­liver on im­prove­ment tar­gets by 2021.

Canada’s first In­dige­nous-led School Board has been launched in Man­i­toba. The largest ed­u­ca­tion agree­ment ever was signed in Au­gust grant­ing fund­ing and man­age­ment con­trol to 23 On­tario Anishin­abe com­mu­ni­ties. But as im­por­tant as th­ese in­cre­men­tal changes in health, ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ad­vances are, the acid test in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is rights: self-de­ter­mi­na­tion rights and treaty im­ple­men­ta­tion. This gov­ern­ment has slowed the waste of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally in point­less le­gal bat­tles with In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties—some es­ti­mate Canadian tax­pay­ers have given lawyers $2 bil­lion over two decades in end­less stupid ef­forts to block treaty set­tle­ments in court. Some id­io­cies re­main, like the money spent to deny a First Na­tion child med­i­cally nec­es­sary treat­ment, but the march­ing or­ders have changed, hope­fully ir­re­vo­ca­bly.

To­day the lawyers, of­fi­cials, and out­side con­sul­tants are be­ing shoved in the di­rec­tion of set­tle­ment as op­posed to the foot-drag­ging, ob­fus­ca­tion and de­lay that is the DNA of the depart­ment. One de­vice that the gov­ern­ment has been wisely quiet about that ap­pears to of­fer con­sid­er­able prom­ise is the use of small, con­fi­den­tial, dis­cus­sion ta­bles: Free flow­ing dis­cus­sions, with com­mu­nity lead­ers, with­out lawyers, and with few bound­aries. The process runs in par­al­lel to some claims bat­tles in court.

As vet­er­ans of post- con­flict heal­ing pro­cesses in­ter­na­tion­ally will at­test, it is al­ways small pri­vate con­fi­dence build­ing ses­sions, where par­tic­i­pants are en­cour­aged to check their ti­tles at the door, that are the es­sen­tial foun­da­tion stones for build­ing more pub­lic bind­ing agree­ments. It was true in North­ern Ire­land, it worked in the Oslo talks be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans, and most re­cently with Iran. The pain and sus­pi­cion in our rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process is no less real than in those more fa­mous cases. The same build­ing process to­wards pub­lic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion would seem to make sense here. So far, th­ese dis­cus­sions have taken place in dozens of lo­ca­tions over many months, in­volv­ing 300 sep­a­rate First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties, rep­re­sent­ing more than 500,000 of their cit­i­zens.

Lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the ad­vances in First Na­tions ed­u­ca­tion. Nowhere is the chal­lenge of de­liv­er­ing proof of real change for money spent more real than on this file.

An early suc­cess in the rights arena,

build­ing on the past suc­cesses of sev­eral Que­bec gov­ern­ments, was the sign­ing in July of the Cree Na­tion Gov­er­nance Agree­ment. It is the first mod­ern treaty in Canada, and sets out in fine de­tail gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment style di­vi­sions of power, ac­count­abil­ity and find­ing, not un­like Canada’s con­sti­tu­tional agree­ments of a gen­er­a­tion ago. It was pushed to com­ple­tion by one of the states­men of Canadian First Na­tions lead­ers, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. Sim­i­lar progress in On­tario, with the Treaty First Na­tions on the prairies, and in mostly Treaty-free B.C., will be much harder and slower.

So, like many long-term so­cial and le­gal re-en­gi­neer­ing ef­forts of this kind, the two-year re­port card is de­cid­edly mixed. If one is op­ti­mistic, one might say, it is clear that the new money and po­lit­i­cal will demon­strated by this gov­ern­ment has be­gun to de­liver change. If one sees one’s a glass more half-empty, one might equally ob- serve that pos­i­tive starts have quickly failed in the past, es­pe­cially with changes of gov­ern­ment.

Two things ap­pear to be es­sen­tial for this gov­ern­ment to de­liver on the too-high rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agenda ex­pec­ta­tions it has un­wisely fos­tered. First, they must be­come much bet­ter sto­ry­tellers and com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Many of the agree­ments cited above are com­pletely un­known to the vast ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans.

The old depart­ment’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions cre­den­tials were a laugh­ing­stock in gov­ern­ment. They were seen as too slow and too re­ac­tive, even by their slow and re­ac­tive peers in other de­part­ments. To win at­ten­tion for some of the ad­vances, and not just re­act late to tragic sui­cide and fail­ing wa­ter qual­ity stats will re­quire an en­tirely dif­fer­ent team un­der lead­er­ship that un­der­stands po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the 21st cen­tury.

The sec­ond too-of­ten miss­ing in­gre- di­ent is proud and loud al­lies. It’s hard to blame, for ex­am­ple, a suc­cess­ful woman band leader who has made great gains on the ground for her com­mu­nity, not want­ing to be seen ad­vanc­ing the sto­ry­line of a gov­ern­ment that does such a poor job of telling its own story.

With­out some of the new gen­er­a­tion of smart, tough, well-ed­u­cated First Na­tions and other In­dige­nous lead­ers step­ping up more of­ten, more vis­i­bly, to salute the hard-fought gains, back­slid­ing will soon fol­low. Re­cidi­vism on this file, al­low­ing in­er­tia to drag back any ad­vance, is the norm. Re­sist­ing the slide will re­quire bet­ter sto­ries told by au­then­tic First Na­tions sto­ry­tellers.

Adam Scotti photo

Jus­tice Mur­ray Sin­clair in Ottawa in De­cem­ber 2015 after the re­lease of his land­mark Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­port on res­i­den­tial schools.

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