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Justice For Aboriginal Canadians Can't Wait Another Year

12/21/2016 11:24 EST | Updated 12/21/2016 11:24 EST
Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pauses while speaking during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report in Ottawa, Canada, December 15, 2015. Trudeau pledged to work toward full reconciliation with Canadian Aboriginals on Tuesday as he accepted a final report on the abuses of the government's now-defunct system of residential schools for indigenous children. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

It has been a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, "Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future." Findings of the commission helped all of us to confront truths about the terrible inequities and discrimination faced by this country's aboriginal peoples and the legacy of the residential school system.

The report itself was an important moment in Canada's history. It was an acknowledgement of both the legacy and ongoing mistreatment of aboriginal communities. It revealed truths about the web of systemic racism and colonialism in Canadian society. In fact, it was more than a report because it gave voice to teach us an important story about the damage done by government policies and the attitudes of people.

It was tough to hear, but needed to be said. The same, I'm sure, will be said of the coming inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.

After a decade of stonewalling and denial from the former Harper government, it seemed a year ago like we finally had a government in Ottawa ready to listen and act.

In the year since, we have seen the listening. Now we need to see the action.

In a tweet last week, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, wrote:

It was a simple and heartfelt plea from a woman I admire a great deal, and a call to action that I fully support.

The pain of the residential school system continues to be felt through generations of survivors and aboriginal families. We have an obligation as a country to address that pain and to repair the damage done by the state-supported schools.

There have certainly been some triumphs in the past year. On November 1, Blackstock sat in the House of Commons gallery surrounded by supporters and allies as MPs voted unanimously to support an NDP motion for an increase of $155 million in welfare services for First Nations children. A Unifor delegation was on hand to witness the vote alongside Blackstock. She beamed as MPs stood one-by-one to vote in favour of the motion, even though the increase would not take government funding beyond what was already budgeted.

As a symbolic move, however, support for the motion from government MPs and cabinet ministers signaled something important.

When policy gets stalled, real people get hurt.

We must also remember that along with this progress there have been horrifying tragedies in the past year, as well.

A fire at the Oneida Nation near London just last week, for instance, killed five members of the same family -- a father and four of his children, including one infant -- in a blaze the local fire chief said was the direct result of overcrowding and inadequate housing on reserves.

A 2011 federal study found that people living in aboriginal communities are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than those in the rest of the country.

Across the country, aboriginal children still struggle to get an education in adequate facilities given that First Nations schools receive less funding per student than provincial and territory schools. The Parliamentary Budget Officer recently highlighted the lack of education quality that is most evident in remote northern communities that face a disproportionate disadvantage.

The Canadian government must do more than just talk.

Of equal cause for concern, First Nations women and girls continue to go missing and are targeted. Families continue to be torn apart by this violence which is affecting entire communities.

These are the kinds of tragedies that are allowed to continue happening when there is inaction. When policy gets stalled, real people get hurt. For our aboriginal communities, the hurt is deep and ongoing. This is exactly why action is needed and it is needed today.

Talk is good. The frank talk we have had about the very real challenges facing aboriginal communities and about what is needed to address those challenges is certainly much more than we have had from our federal government in a very long time.

The Canadian government must do more than just talk. There is already a clear call to action outlined on what must be done. It's time to do it. Justice should not have to wait another year.

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