Indigenous History Month

Canadian Government’s Journey Towards Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples

The Canadian government has been striving to reconcile with the country’s Indigenous communities. The journey began nearly two decades ago, progress has been made and now this is accelerating.

The Government of Canada has been working towards improving the relationship with Indigenous communities on a nation-to-nation basis. One of the early initiatives was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008 to address the sad legacy of many injustices that have had generational impacts, including the Indian Residential School system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families. Since then, a variety of programs and initiatives have been implemented to bring measurable change to Indigenous peoples and their communities. These have addressed things such as land and self-government agreements, as well as reforming a child welfare system that has an overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. It is a testament to the strength and resilience of the Indigenous peoples that the reconciliation effort came about largely in response to their determination to recapture their cultures.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission: a Catalyst for Change

It is not easy to correct the results of discrimination and lack of cultural understanding of Indigenous peoples that occurred over centuries, but the Canadian Government has committed to doing so. One of the first serious attempts was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was implemented in 2007 to facilitate reconciliation among former Indian Residential School students, their families, and their communities. The effort to collect historical information about the schools and their lasting impact on Indigenous communities was so massive that the final 6-volume report was not published until 2015.

There were 94 calls to action in the TRC report, and the government has been working to address them. This is an ongoing complex process involving children and youth welfare and education, health systems, language and culture, justice in the legal system, historical preservation and commemoration of lives harmed, and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. Bit by bit, progress is being made in every area at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels.

The government tracks the actions taken to fulfill the TRC commitment and documents them online, where everyone can review them. There are too many initiatives and programs to mention in this article, but reading through them truly makes one realize why reconciliation is so complex.

For example, in 2019, the Justice Partnership and Innovation Program was established to “support renewed legal relationships with Indigenous and to improve access to justice and address gaps in the Canadian justice system.” The Justice program addresses the systemic discrimination and overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system, rooted in the legacy of colonialism and racism. Budget 2021 funded $11 million through March 2024. There were 27 funding agreements signed for projects to revitalize Indigenous Laws and Legal Traditions, helping First Nations, Inuit, and Métis respond effectively to the revitalization of the justice system.

It is nearly impossible to rebuild relationships with people who face continuing discrimination in a country’s legal system, which is why the response to the call to action is so important. There is a lot of good work going on to engage Indigenous youth, enable residential school survivors to officially reclaim their names, identify missing children and document burial information, and close gaps in health care. The government is investing $2 billion in funding for 10 years in a distinctions-based Indigenous Health Equity Fund and is funding additional health services to ensure Indigenous Peoples have access to healthcare. A project that has collected data and created a health inequities tool is being used to identify the social determinants of mental health inequities.

So Much to Do and So Much Happening

However, much more is happening to restore Indigenous people’s rights, communities, and cultures. The Public Health Agency of Canada funds the Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern communities, focusing on early childhood development for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and their families living off-reserve.(4) The First Nations Child and Family Services Program funds provincial programs to provide prevention and protection services to Indigenous children and their families. In 2022, the program was revised in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the Chiefs of Ontario, and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. This was to ensure it provided culturally based and equal family supports, and focused on reducing the number of Indigenous children in care and keeping them with their families. The Indigenous Economic Development Fund supports Indigenous-led economic development initiatives, including skills training, start-ups, and community economic infrastructure projects. There are three money streams: economic diversification, business and community, and regional partnership. An Indigenous community Capital Grants Program funds the development of community projects contributing to a sustainable social base, and it also supports economic participation in Indigenous communities located on and off the reserve. The New Relationship Fund (NRF) supports First Nations, Métis communities, and Indigenous organizations’ efforts to create jobs, develop business partnerships, build consultation and engagement skills, and improve economic opportunities.

There is wonderful work being done to remove the barriers that have held back Indigenous peoples from equal participation in the Canadian economy. Still, significant gaps prevail in average income levels, housing conditions, employment rates, and educational attainment. Many live in areas where the transportation infrastructure requires long distances to receive goods, which increases the prices of essential items such as food.

Reconciliation in Action

Private organizations are assisting the effort. For example, RBC works with Indigenous communities to develop trusts to hold money from settlement agreements such as impact benefit agreements with mining, oil, and gas companies that give the communities a share of project revenue.

Improving the lives and communities of the Indigenous people of Canada includes restoring their right to embrace their cultures. When Indigenous students attend universities, they want their perspectives incorporated into learning. When Indigenous children play, their families want them to enjoy culturally relevant activities. In 2010, the Chiefs of Moose Cree and Sandy Lake First Nations and the Chiefs of Ontario invited the Right to Play organization to develop a children’s program that puts reconciliation into action in their communities. Now, the organization has programs in eight Canadian provinces and territories.

So much is happening, ranging from an urban indigenous strategy to negotiating modern treaties and land claims to addressing poverty and access to quality education to promoting economic development and cultural empowerment. While progress has been made in Canada's reconciliation efforts, significant challenges and barriers remain, including ongoing socio-economic disparities, unresolved land claims, systemic discrimination, and the need for greater implementation of the Calls to Action from the TRC. Continued commitment, collaboration, and dialogue between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government, supported by businesses and nonprofits, are essential for advancing reconciliation and building a more just and equitable society. It is challenging to overcome systemic discrimination that has endured for hundreds of years, but it is a challenge that must be successfully met for the good of both people and country.

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