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Truth and reconciliation: Will this time be any different?

The coming year offers Canada its best chance in four centuries to reach an accommodation with its indigenous population.

This week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published its full report – six volumes totalling nearly 4,000 pages – on how best to cope with the fallout from the residential-school era. It comes six years after the commission began its work and six months after the release of the report's highly acclaimed executive summary. Change is in the air, and the Prime Minister was on hand Tuesday when the final documents were presented. During the campaign that brought him to power, he promised that, if elected, he would enact all 94 of the commission's recommendations.

A skeptic may recall that almost exactly 20 years ago another large report appeared, that of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It had no fewer than 440 recommendations for sweeping changes that would recognize aboriginal self-government and address social, educational, health and housing needs – at a cost of $35-billion over 20 years.

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The federal government responded, more than a year later, with an action plan that was much more modest. But it led eventually to a pact between native leaders and then prime minister Paul Martin that was very encouraging – but aborted after his Liberals were voted out of office 10 years ago next month.

So, what will happen now? Will history repeat itself as Canada falters once again in trying to deal with its biggest item of unfinished business: mutual accommodation with indigenous people?

Just saying that this time will be different (as Neville Chamberlain famously told reporters after his "peace in our time" meeting with Adolf Hitler) is not enough. But there are signs that Canada's quest for a just and equitable relationship with aboriginal people may be coming together.

Champlain's dream

It's still too soon to see what can and should be done, and the path is not an easy one. But we would do well to remember the example set 400 years ago by Samuel de Champlain. The founder of Quebec did not set out to conquer the indigenous people, whom he regarded, according to biographer David Hackett Fischer in Champlain's Dream, as "fully equal to Europeans in powers of mind, and … superior in some ways."

Had such an attitude persisted, the residential schools would have been inconceivable. Exposed as a young man to the brutal treatment of indigenous people in New Spain, Champlain envisioned a society in which settlers and local inhabitants would intermarry and, together, forge a strong nation.

He was ahead of his times, but that dream may yet come true because we now have what seems to be our best chance at mutual accommodation since he was alive – and the cost of failure has become too high.

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The TRC was established specifically to redress the residential-schools tragedy, but the six years of research and public hearings led to a report on a wide swath of issues – from the sociological, economic and political impact when children are separated from their homes (let alone disappear altogether) to what happens when people lose their language, culture and sense of identity.

The 94 recommendations for reconciliation range from how to heal families and communities and revitalize aboriginal cultures, languages, spirituality, laws and government systems to building respect for and a relationship with First Nations at all levels of government.

No mean feat

Despite Justin Trudeau's promise, implementing the recommendations will be easier said than done. If another Trudeau promise – more open discussion – is kept, the best early use of the report will be to provide the basis for proposals by many actors. Input must be real and come from all who are affected.

The members of the commission clearly believe that First Nations have been missing from almost every part of our national life. Many changes will be needed to break this pattern: Every significant institution and segment of Canadian society needs to take an honest look at itself from this perspective.

These action calls cover child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, aboriginal equity in the legal system, public servants' training and development, youth programs, museums and archives, missing children and burial information, commemoration, establishment of a National Council for Reconciliation, church apologies and reconciliation, media and reconciliation, sports and reconciliation, business and reconciliation, aboriginal information for newcomers to Canada, Canada and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and a new Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation.

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Given all these demands, the devil will be in the details and in the need for goodwill.

The TRC report described Canada's residential-school tragedy as "cultural genocide," which some people consider inflammatory. But what happened is what's truly inflammatory.

The residential schools are part of a much larger problem in the Western world. Over the last few centuries, thinking that it knows more than it does, the West has sometimes felt it has the right (or the obligation) to impose its views on others. Even those considered socially progressive were still captive to their times. For instance, J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (predecessor of the New Democratic Party), once praised a Toronto church for sending a minister to a residential school in western Canada "to do God's work." Even if people mean well, superiority and arrogance can be very destructive; add abuse to the mix, and the results can be fatal.

The TRC report addresses all these problems and, in its recommendations, seeks to find redress for them. A key factor is recognition – it matters to everyone. The apology former prime minister Stephen Harper gave to aboriginal people was important, but his failure to call a public inquiry into the murdered and missing women remains a need for recognition that now the Trudeau government is promising to address.

Historically, there have been many similar breaches of trust and respect.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a jointly developed Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Recognition recommended by the TRC are more important than many Canadians realize. Restoring broken trust requires both mutual recognition and much encouragement.

Also, we must recognize that the sizable gap in the funding for education between reserves and everywhere else is unfair – and stupid. Despite the imbalance, a number of aboriginal-education initiatives are under way across Canada – many of them innovative and privately funded. Canada's public-school system could learn a lot from them.

First Nations are united in their belief that education is the way to strengthen and sustain their cultural, linguistic, social and economic development. They want it to prepare their children to walk in two worlds: to know their language and culture and be proud of their identity, and also to have the skills they need to succeed in the dominant society and the modern economy.

This objective applies to aboriginal students both in reserve and public schools – just as it applies to all Canadian students. Everyone lives simultaneously in two worlds – inner and outer. Literacy facilitates access to culture; fluency in two or more languages brings cognitive, social and economic benefits; and a strong sense of identity improves academic achievement and social behaviour.

The missing

When I saw the recent revival Flare Path, the 1942 Terence Rattigan play about British airmen and their wives, I was reminded how, during my youth, the nightly radio news almost always ended: "One of our aircraft is missing." The wives would know if an aircraft had not returned – it could be one of their husbands.

Indigenous people still experience too many such moments. We are constantly reminded of the women who are missing – and perhaps murdered – but many in the community are missing as well from Canada's mutual-accommodation ways. Our school system fails to provide everyone with a good education, and our child-welfare and justice systems do not shield everyone that needs protection.

The TRC report is essentially about a large number of Canadians who have gone missing, or risk doing so. How will Canada reduce that number? Shawn Atleo, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, described aboriginal Canadians as a "traumatized people." Being missing helps to produce the trauma.

The institutional critical mass that's needed encompasses key government leaders and their governments, the courts, educators, the media, public opinion, and business at large and affected industries.

Aboriginal leaders and their communities will have to do part of the heavy lifting. The TRC Report is focused on what aboriginal groups want and need, so they will have to get the different balls moving by thinking through what they specifically want and how best to achieve it.

In my experience, no matter how good your case, governments and businesses tend to act only when your proposal helps them deal with specific immediate challenges – not their longer-term interests. And the time is finally here for movement on relations with aboriginal peoples.

Political stars aligned

Mr. Harper did more on the First Nations front than he is generally credited with, but he was limited by a reluctant voter base. His successor doesn't have that problem: Mr. Trudeau's heart and mind are open – the aboriginal issue is one of the more important challenges he wants to address. The premiers of the four largest provinces are in the same place. There is a strong political basis for moving forward.

The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently found that the law on aboriginal title favours First Nations – decisions that, along with their protest-based clout, gives them greater leverage on big resource projects. Although some businessmen and their advisers find the Supreme Court uncertainties hard to manage for practical business decision-making, I doubt they present an insuperable problem. Legal reality may help businesses see they need more social licence for what they do. We will see.

This combination of evolving politics and Supreme Court decisions should encourage Canada's First Nations to believe that the political and legal system can work for them. In the last federal election, First Nations' engagement was higher than ever and a record number of 10 aboriginal members were elected as MPs. Having the First Nations on side would be a huge asset for credibility on the environment, although the federal and Alberta governments and the oil and pipeline industries have been very slow to grasp that idea.

The media seem to get it. So, for the most part, does the public, as long as whatever steps taken are discussed openly and thoughtfully first. There will, however, still be strong differences on the particulars.

Optimism among aboriginal people about the combined potential of the TRC report and the new Trudeau government is palpable. Mutual accommodation and improved relations by both sides will be needed to flesh out these expectations and to seize what is now possible. Continuing political leadership from the prime minister and the premiers will also be indispensable.

Looking ahead

The whole tone of the report presented by the commission (whose chair, Murray Sinclair, was Manitoba's first aboriginal judge) was forward-looking, using truth, not blame or anger, to move toward reconciliation.

In the early seventies, I used to go fishing on Georgian Bay with Barney Danson, Pierre Trudeau's minister of defence. On one occasion, he talked about doing business with West Germany, I asked how, being Jewish, he could do that, given the Holocaust and the fact that he lost an eye as well as many comrades during the Second World War..

"You have to move on," he replied, expressing an idea that is the most powerful message for our times.

It also underscores what an indigenous professional I know and respect told me when I asked what she considers the best way to address the TRC report:

Governments should move on matters under their control, especially funding for education and child health. All sides should focus on how to bridge the gaps between them First Nations should take more responsibility for their own. future, however politically incorrect that advice is in some circles.

The world is driven by feelings and limited by facts. Right now, there are high hopes for reconciliation and mutual accommodation, and we must seize the moment.

We can achieve these goals by open discussion, very hard work, and much patience over a long period. What matters now is to get on the right path – quickly.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., and has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the nation's future, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project along with Trent University. To see more, visit http://www.canadiandifference.ca

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