Reconciliation: Moving Beyond Symbolic Gains

By Geneviève Malouin-Rivard

The 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2017 set off a chain of initiatives across Canada to foster reconciliation with First Nations peoples: Montreal’s city flag now bears a symbol representing the contribution of Indigenous people; the name Amherst has been removed from Montreal’s city streets; that city’s mayor, Valérie Plante, has appointed a commissioner for Indigenous relations; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced federal legislation on the respect of ancestral rights.  

Our cultural industry is a reflection of this effervescent political landscape. Since June 2017, the National Film Board has been applying an action plan designed to give Indigenous producers equitable representation. On the big screen, Canada’s mainstream movie industry has been helping to highlight this still little-known culture with features like Avant les rues / Before the Streets (2016), Hochelaga, Terre des âmes / Hochelaga, Land of Souls (2017) and Indian Horse (2018).

Still, don’t be lulled by these initiatives. A closer look reveals that they bear a weighty symbolism that masks our institutions’ actual lack of action.

Historically, Canada’s administrative policies have kept the freedom of Indigenous people in check. That’s why the self-determination of our First Nations can flourish only if our laws change dramatically and give Indigenous people true political clout.

Of course, the situation of Indigenous people has improved in recent years, largely thanks to grassroots movements where they’ve denounced and avoided efforts to assimilate them.  

More recently, however, our First Nations have stood up forcefully to seek justice.

For instance, the much-needed National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, launched on September 1, 2016, is spinning its wheels; yet, the end of its mandate (December 31, 2018), is just around the corner.

One cause underlying the Inquiry’s stagnation already began to surface when several of its key players resigned in succession between November 2017 and January 2018. Among them was lawyer Alain Arsenault, who cited conflicting visions within the Commission.

According to an article by Radio-Canada’s Emmanuelle Latraverse, Mr. Arsenault wanted to harness the full power granted to the Inquiry to force the hand of federal and provincial ministries, as well as police forces, and to compile clear evidence that would force central players to appear before the Commission. A few months later, an organization by the name of Femmes autochtones du Québec pointed to the same shortcoming: the absence of court proceedings.

In that scenario, the National Inquiry has become more a search for testimonies than a quest for justice, hence the need to reassert its original mandate: combat violence against Indigenous women and girls and ensure their safety.  

This violence, so often recounted by the families of those having disappeared, has close ties to Canadian institutions: murders masqueraded by police forces as drownings or traffic accidents, and toddlers flown away to hospitals without their parents then declared as deceased without the slightest proof to that effect.

When an issue conflicts with the reconciliation movement, the concrete action that should characterize the movement weakens. The government’s refusal to push ahead with court proceedings oddly coincides with efforts to protect individuals who’ve ignored rumours of assaults. In that context, the Inquiry resembles more a strategic reaction to public opinion than a genuine commitment to reconciliation, witness the federal government’s slender investment in extending the Commission’s mandate to 2020 as requested by chief commissioner Marion Buller.

The Trudeau government refuses to weigh into this thorny issue and work to give the Inquiry the full freedom it needs to achieve its goals. This inertia unmistakably undermines not only the interests of Indigenous people, but also the principles of justice and dignity.

That said, reconciliation is indeed underway, and the measures taken by our institutions these past few years are unprecedented, proving that a voice representing First Nations is wanted in the public sphere. Such symbolic gains must serve as a step toward reconciliation, not as a reason to halt the quest for harmony.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is asking the government to reinvigorate the National Inquiry. We also want the Commission to communicate responsibly and transparently with the general public. Finally, a clear plan of action is needed to provide support services to witnesses after they testify.

To shed more light on our demands, PSAC has launched an advocacy campaign. In addition to reintegrating the issues surrounding the NIMMIWG into our social discourse, we’ve distributed Red Dress pins to visibly express our solidarity. What’s more, we’re circulating a petition calling on the Canadian government to play a direct part in ensuring the Inquiry’s mandate is upheld.

Make your voices heard as well. Don’t allow this quest for justice to lose its impetus and to simply wither away on its own. Demand more from government than simple promises!

Express your support!