06/12/2015 05:42 EDT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Reconciliation Will Not Be Realized Until We Live Up to Past Promises

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Seven years ago today, the Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons and delivered a poignant apology to the survivors of residential schools. Last week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its 94 recommendations. We now have a renewed path forward for Canada's unfinished journey of healing and reconciliation. Canadians are beginning to understand the truth about the tragic legacy of residential schools and to appreciate that achieving meaningful reconciliation is not only the responsibility of elected politicians, but of every Canadian.

The residential school system was a systematic plan to remove aboriginal children from their homes, families and cultures to facilitate the stated policy of "killing the Indian in the child." Students endured unconscionable physical and mental abuse and generations of Aboriginal Peoples were left emotionally scared and culturally isolated. Over a period of more than a century, an estimated 150,000 aboriginal children attended these schools and the TRC estimates as at least 6000 died.

This calculated act of cultural genocide inflicted unimaginable long-term harm on the aboriginal children who were forced to attend these schools and created severe intergenerational trauma that aboriginal communities and our country continue to confront. This shameful part of our collective history spanned seven generations and many governments and different political parties. Healing the damage of this dark chapter in Canadian history will require the sustained action of the current and many future governments.

At the release of the TRC recommendations, former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine described a 2005 trip to Rome with then Prime Minister Paul Martin and then Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. He spoke of a dinner during that trip where he explained the need for reconciliation and recounted Paul Martin's response that, "we're going to get this done." In May of 2005, then Justice Minister Irwin Cotler appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to move the resolution of the residential schools legacy from the courtroom to the negotiating table. With good will from all sides, an agreement in principle was reached in November of 2005 and signed by all the parties. This agreement in principle set out all the significant components of the settlement, including compensation for the survivors, commemoration of these tragic events and the creations of the TRC.

After the new Conservative government came to power in 2006, the final agreement was concluded and subsequently ratified by the court. When Prime Minister Harper apologized on behalf of all Canadians in 2008, his speech in the House of Commons was eloquent and represented an essential step on the path toward healing and reconciliation. There was a groundswell of goodwill from Aboriginal Peoples from coast to coast to coast and the Prime Minister should be credited for being on the right side of history on that day. But it is also important to reflect upon the broader intent of the apology, which was to serve as a foundation on which to build a renewed relationship between Canada and Aboriginal Peoples in the spirit of trust and partnership. These aspirations were reflected in the words of the apology, but have sadly found no expression in the policies of the Harper government since the apology.

The apology means nothing if all Canadians do not understand the history behind it. It was supposed to signal a fundamental change in the relationship going forward. Unfortunately, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have been listed as adversaries by the current government. The Prime Minister has refused to deal with appalling gaps in health, education and economic outcomes, nor the deplorable living conditions in many aboriginal communities. Reconciliation will never be realized until we live up to our past promises and ensure the equality of opportunity necessary to create a prosperous shared future.

The Prime Minister's refusal to confirm these tragic events were a "cultural genocide" or to commit to implementing the TRC recommendations has been deeply disappointing. I am also concerned with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's comments that it's unrealistic to promise to implement all of the recommendations‎. In contrast, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has confirmed the Liberal Party's unwavering support for all of the TRC's recommendations, and called on the Government of Canada to take immediate action to implement them. As Justice Sinclair has said, meaningful reconciliation will require, "deliberate, thoughtful and sustained action." The government must begin that sustained action immediately by working with the survivors, aboriginal leaders, the premiers and other partners to implement the recommendations of the TRC.

I am saddened that on Thursday, when the Prime Minister had the unique opportunity to take leadership on a key TRC recommendation -- the need for an apology from the Pope -- he failed to do so. The Prime Minister refused to directly ask his Holiness to apologize to the residential schools survivors on behalf of the Catholic Church. On this day, the Prime Minister showed he was on the wrong side of history.

As Canadians prepare to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we must ensure that we begin the next 150 years by completing the unfinished business of Confederation. Canada needs a renewed nation to nation relationship with aboriginal communities rooted in Aboriginal Rights, Treaties, the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in the spirit of partnership, respect, and cooperation for mutual benefit. This reconciliation is not only necessary to safeguard Aboriginal Peoples' constitutionally protected rights and to ensure social justice, but because it will create tremendous economic growth and ensure shared future prosperity. Thinking seven generations ahead makes reconciliation imperative.


Residential Schools: A Photo History