All I know now about the report of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s residential schools is what I have gleaned from radio and television reports.
I hope, before long, to read the published summary; and I will try, eventually, to tackle the full report. But I already know enough to agree with those who say it is an historic document of great importance to all Canadians, whatever their race or background.
Rex Murphy argued on CBC on June 4 that this report (let’s call it the Sinclair report after the commission’s chairman, Judge Murray Sinclair) should be the only issue in this year’s federal election campaign. I won’t go that far; if we don’t soon begin to deal seriously with global warming there might not be a Canada worth saving for any of its inhabitants. But I’ll agree that the Sinclair report should be a major issue now and into the election campaign.
One of several reasons for saying so it that the report is an overdue educational document for the majority of non-aboriginal Canadians. Too many of us have been blissfully ignorant of what went on in the Frist Nations residential schools and of the treatment — the mistreatment and neglect — of our First Nations fellow citizens in the past and even today. We needed this eye-opener.
A second reason follows on the first. Although this is not the first document to tell us of our neglect of the First Nations, this one is not only more focused, it is also more comprehensive and couched in more moving terms than its predecessors. We cannot read even brief summaries of it without feeling an obligation to act upon it.
That, in turn, brings us back to the case for making the report a major election issue in 2015. The timing of the report is most opportune. It makes it impossible for our political parties to ignore it during the campaign. They can hardly avoid saying what they think of it and what they will do, if elected, to address the challenges it presents, while at the same time it gives the electorate a chance — an obligation, in fact — to demand that the politicians outline how they will respond.
This is not to suggest that the challenges raised by the Sinclair report can be met successfully in a year or two. But plans must be laid out now and a start made on implementing them.
To my mind, the past should not be prologue — except in the sense that the wrongs done to residential school inmates must be fully acknowledged and the damage done to the survivors remedied as far as possible — which is to say, unfortunately, extremely hard.
Psychological injury can be cured, if at all, only with time and great difficulty. Resentment should be somewhat easier to eradicate, but that takes time, too, and requires the willingness of both sides to work at it.
So what is the best way forward?
Unquestionably, the major onus lies with the Canadian governments — especially Ottawa — and the non-native population. They must be prepared to spend much money, time and energy to improve the lot of First Nations bands and individuals. That means better housing, obviously, but also better opportunities for education and social development.
But the First Nations have their essential role to play, too, especially those living on reservations. Some bands are already showing a capacity to manage their government funding responsibly and even productively. Sadly, too many still suffer from corrupt leadership and general lethargy. If they are to earn the better funding to which they are entitled and the respect of their fellow Canadians, they must do their share.
Peter Hepher is a retired journalist who lives in Creston.