Reconciliation with Aboriginal People is important for all

By David Langtry

As published in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 26, 2014.

It should not surprise Manitobans to learn, as the province's auditor general and Statistics Canada each reported last week, our prisons are full to the brim and the overwhelming majority of prisoners (70 per cent) are aboriginal. Ask any Winnipegger why this is so, and you're likely to hear more frustration and finger-pointing than empathy. 

But, on the contrary, Canadians should be looking more deeply into our own history for explanations. It is incumbent on us to understand our collective responsibility, because so much damage has been done in our names, and on our behalf. Over successive generations, our governments impoverished, marginalized, debilitated and ripped apart the rich tapestry of indigenous culture and identity that once covered this land. 

It started right at the birth of this nation with policies of forced assimilation designed to drive aboriginal people off the land and settle the West. Indian residential schools, enshrined in federal government policy in 1876, were key to this effort. 

For more than a century, aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their homes and crowded into spartan boarding schools plagued by hunger, abuse, disease and death. They were banned from using their languages and cultures. They were taught traditional customs were inferior. They were taught they were inferior. 

The fallout from all this lives on in remote First Nations communities struggling to emerge from decades of neglect. It lives on in downtown cores of major Canadian cities. It lives on at north Main Street. 

I grew up in Winnipeg in the 1950s. My upbringing was unusual: racist stereotypes, so common then, had no place in our home. My father saw everyone as equal. He treated everyone with respect. 

Aboriginal people had a positive influence on me. My father would take me to Shoal Lake every weekend, where we camped in the heart of a First Nations community and fished from their shores. As a young man, I took a job that involved living and working in First Nations communities throughout Manitoba. 

But while I made friends and learned from the wisdom of elders, I learned nothing about residential schools. Only years later, when I became assistant deputy minister for child and family services in Manitoba, did the deep, enduring impacts of the schools on survivors and their families hit me for the first time. 

What hit me was the inescapable evidence of a spiral of decline that begins with the destruction of families. It is hard to learn to be a parent when all you recall from your childhood is the end of the lash or the shame of being sexually assaulted. Here's another distressing statistic: fully half of all children in foster care in Canada today are aboriginal. 

University of Ottawa and Carleton University researchers confirm in a recent study the trauma of residential schools is passed from one generation to the next. When multiple generations attended them, the negative effects are cumulative. Aboriginal people in Canada lag behind the rest of us on indicators of well-being such as education, employment and health. 

This is among the reasons why this federal government's 2008 apology to aboriginal people is so significant. But that apology, so overdue, was just a first step. Now we need to achieve reconciliation. 

Later this week, I will bear witness to this tragic history when survivors of the schools gather in Edmonton for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final national event. The TRC was set up under the terms of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, brought on behalf of some 80,000 survivors. By giving them a chance to tell their stories, and by investigating archives long kept hidden, the TRC has made strides toward uncovering the truth. 

Reconciliation, sadly, is more elusive. 

Yet it is important to the future of this country. Aboriginal peoples need to be at the table as equal partners, with mutual respect and trust, if Canada is to fully realize its potential. 

As Jim Prentice said last month in his role as special adviser to Enbridge: "There will be no pipelines to the West Coast, there will be no exports of Canada's oil from the West Coast... unless we strike meaningful economic partnerships with First Nations." 

In my role as Honourary Witness this week, I will make a personal commitment to build awareness of our shared past. I intend to be part of the process of healing. Only when we assume responsibility for the past can we find the path to reconciliation between our peoples. 

David Langtry is acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He will be inducted as an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final event in Edmonton on Thursday [March 27, 2014].

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