A squandered opportunity: 25 years after royal commission, Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples remains fractured

It was hailed as Canada’s last chance to make amends. But 25 years on, several commentators agree the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples failed to restore Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

“It was virtually ignored and laid to gather dust,” says former commissioner Paul Chartrand.

Chartrand was appointed to the commission as a representative of Canada’s Métis people. He remembers Indigenous organizations rallying behind the commission’s recommendations. But faced with government inaction, that fervour soon gave way to disappointment, says Chartrand. “The shouts turned to murmurs, and the murmurs died away.”

Established in 1991, the commission was born of growing clashes between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. These tensions had reached a flashpoint in the 1990 Oka Crisis: the 78-day standoff that pitted Canadian soldiers against Mohawks from the Quebec community of Kanesatake over a land dispute.

Then prime minister Brian Mulroney gave the commission an ambitious mandate — to redress “literally centuries of injustice.” By the time the commission released its report in 1996, its costs had ballooned to $58 million, making it the most expensive royal commission in Canadian history.

The commissioners roundly condemned Canada’s long-standing assimilationist policies. Their report contained 440 recommendations, setting out a 20-year plan to address Indigenous issues: from self-governance to resources, economic development to social and cultural affairs.

But when asked about the commission’s legacy, Chartrand offers a bleak assessment: “None of the significant foundational recommendations were ever accepted.”

In response to the commission’s findings, Liberal minister of Indian affairs Jane Stewart apologized in 1998 to residential school survivors. “To those of you who suffered this tragedy, we are deeply sorry,” she said.

But according to many Indigenous commentators, that’s where the government’s efforts ended.

“That was the one public statement that I think captured the Canadian imagination for at least a news day,” says Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “Then it faded into the white noise of Canadian society.”

Ten years later, prime minister Stephen Harper again apologized for Canada’s residential schools — but not before scrapping the Kelowna Accord in 2006. Endorsed a year earlier by Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the agreement would have provided $5 billion towards Indigenous education, employment, housing and health. The Conservatives committed $450 million.

Little progress has been made against the litany of problems facing Indigenous people in Canada. Inadequate housing remains a reality in many Indigenous communities, as was seen in 2011 in Attawapiskat. Despite representing only three per cent of Canada’s population, Indigenous adults make up a quarter of inmates in provincial and territorial jails. First Nations youth remain five to six times more likely to commit suicide than their non-Indigenous peers.

And Indigenous leaders still struggle to spur Ottawa into action. “I never anticipated how difficult it would be to get the federal government to respond to basic equity issues for children,” says Blackstock. Blackstock recently won a nine-year-long legal battle against the federal government before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which found Ottawa provides far less child welfare funding to on-reserve children than provinces do off-reserve.

But Hayden King, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, remains optimistic. He says the commission’s work offers a path forward, pointing to the Idle No More protest movement.

A young girl holds a placard at an Idle No More protest in London, Ont. on March 21, 2013. (Creative Commons licence provided courtesy of Flickr user The Indignants)

A young girl holds a placard at an Idle No More protest in London, Ont. on March 21, 2013. (Creative Commons licence provided courtesy of Flickr user The Indignants)

“Canadians were just losing their minds. ‘What do the Indians want?’ ” King says the commission’s report “was a helpful device for people to put forward and say, ‘If you’re curious, give this a read. Take a look at this. Understand your own history to better understand what we’re asking for.’ ”

The Liberal government has committed to carrying out all 94 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.

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