National Column: Mature nations confront darkest periods

Justice Murray Sinclair has shown us a way to a better Canada, a Canada we should all aspire to, a Canada we wrongly believe we already live in today.

The chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada has reminded us that mature nations confront their darkest periods. They do not run from them, they learn from them and they try to right them.

And he has reminded us that the ugly legacy of our residential schools is not an aboriginal problem, but a Canadian problem.

He is not demanding penance, he told an emotional ceremony in a packed Ottawa hotel ballroom, but is offering us a second chance at an equal relationship between First Nations and non-aboriginals in this country.

But, what price reconciliation?

His 94 recommendations – his call to action – include many that are controversial, certainly many that will be extremely costly.

There were two ways to read these recommendations.

One would be in the context of that room Tuesday, where Kleenex was distributed by yellow-vested volunteers as men and women wept listening to testimony from survivors on a video screen.

One could read them as survivors were asked to stand, and one by one they tentatively rose from their seats, given long, respectful ovations that they accepted with a doleful stoicism. Commissioner Marie Wilson paid tribute to them for their “bravery and trust” in telling their stories and challenged Canadians to show the same bravery in reconciling the past.

She spoke of the estimated 6,000 children who perished apart from their families, who were buried at schools that had cemeteries but not playgrounds, who perished in fires or were found huddled together in the bush, frozen to death.

But outside that room, many Canadians will ask why they should be asked to pay in 2015 for something that previous governments did in past generations.

They will see many of the recommendations as symbolic.

The commission has called on the federal government to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, something to which the Conservatives now merely”aspire.”

It wants a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation, it wants Pope Francis to come to Canada within a year to issue an apology for the role of the Catholic church in the residential schools, it wants all levels of government to provide annual reports on the progress toward reconciliation. It wants the prime minister to issue an annual “State of Aboriginal Peoples” report. It wants a monumentto the survivors in Ottawa and all provincial capitals and a national holiday honouring survivors and victims.

They may see others as controversial – a change to the oath of citizenship to include respect for treaties with indigenous people, a requirement that all law and journalism students in Canada be taught the legacy of residential schools and a requirement that medical and nursing schools make aboriginal health a required subject.

Others will be rejected by this government: the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and restoration and an increase in CBC funding, the latter a nod to its vital link to the north and aboriginal languages.

They will see others as expensive. But they must be done.

Sinclair wants judges allowed to ignore mandatory minimum sentences for aboriginals and end the over representation of aboriginals in prisons over the next decade. It wants an end to the gap in education funding between aboriginals and non-aboriginals within one generation.

Sinclair has reached for the moon, but he said he was writing for the future, “not just this government.”

Since Harper’s historic 2008 apology, relations between his government and First Nations have foundered. Twice, Sinclair’s commission had to take Ottawa to court to force the release of documents relevant to its search for truth and the commissioner said Tuesday that “words are not enough.”

For Canadians wondering why we must deal today with the errors of past generations, the short answer is it is because thatís what responsible nations do – they try to correct past wrongs.

Romeo Saganash, an NDP MP who spent 10 years in residential schools and confronted his own demons from that experience, said it best.

Saganash had never heard a word of English or French when he arrived at a residential school in La Tuque, Que.

Shortly after his arrival, his father died, but he could not return to his community to grieve.

He wants Canadians to move forward with him. “We are all in this together,” he told the House of Commons.

If this is the Canada we like to think it is, those words should ring true.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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