Standing up, sitting down, speaking out

There are varying opinions about how many of the 94 Calls to Action contained in the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been implemented.

According to a June 2021 article in the National Post, 13 recommendations have been fully implemented, some steps have been taken towards implementation of 60, and 21 remain completely unaddressed. The Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations led research centre at Ryerson University, is not quite as optimistic: in its 2020 report, it found that only 8 recommendations had been implemented.

Whatever the exact number, as we approach the sixth anniversary of the Report, it is clear that not nearly enough has been done to move this country towards meaningful truth or reconciliation.

Call by call

We have, perhaps, moved one step closer with the implementation of Call to Action 80:

“We call upon the federal government in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples to establish as a statutory holiday a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families and communities and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

This summer, Prime Minister Trudeau announced September 30th as that national statutory holiday.

It’s hard not to feel at least a bit cynical about the timing of this news, coming as it did on the eve of a federal election call, especially given the government’s bleak track record in responding meaningfully to the many crises foisted on Indigenous peoples by colonization, genocide and ongoing racism.

Surely, I am not the only one to feel somewhat dubious about the effectiveness of making what could and should be an important opportunity for learning, reflection and commitment to action a day off from work.

Will it just become a day to fit in one last game of golf for the season, clean up the garden, catch up on household tasks? If so, we’d all be better off at work where, perhaps, we and our colleagues could take the day to educate ourselves about this country’s colonial history, reflect on our responsibilities to change direction and commit to specific actions to support that.

There can be no doubt that such education, reflection and commitment to action are sorely needed. Few of the TRC’s Calls to Action have been implemented. The same is true for the Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. Indigenous people are incarcerated at every level in numbers hugely disproportionate to their percentage of the overall population, while those who commit crimes against Indigenous people face offensively minor consequences. Safe drinking water remains an illusion on many reserves across the country, as do adequate housing and education. Indigenous communities have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Taking a seat

Skyla Hart, an Indigenous grade 10 student in Winnipeg, has been sitting down for the national anthem since she was in grade 5, when she decided this was a way to honour her ancestors and culture while also recognizing ongoing injustices faced by Indigenous peoples:

“This country is a colonized country, and I don’t want to stand for a colonized country.”

This fall, Skyla has been facing consequences for her refusal to stand. On one occasion, she was pulled out of class and ordered to stand in the hall. When she sat in the hall (her explanation – “I would still be standing for O Canada if I stand in the hallway, so I chose to sit down in the hallway” – seems sensible enough), she was yelled at by another teacher. Another day, she was walking in the hall when the national anthem was played and, when she kept walking rather than stopping, she was reprimanded by yet another teacher.

Despite this response, Skyla, supported by her mother, Raven, who is a survivor of the residential school system, remains positive and committed to working for change. She is taking up the principal’s offer to help improve awareness in the school, noting that the present national anthem would need to be “reinvented” before she wold stand up for it. She wants it to recognize both the trauma that Indigenous peoples have been through and that her peoples are “warriors.”

Grown-up discussions

In a recent interview on CBC’s The Current, Jesse Wente said:

“Canada was not built to support Indigenous people. It was built for the exact opposite reason. To turn that is going to require an effort of the people. . . . Where would Canada be if all of those children had been allowed to be their best? If all of our communities had been allowed to thrive? If from the very beginning it had been understood that Canada, the health of its democracy, is forever interwoven with the health of Indigenous communities and their democracies, that when one of us gets sick, the other can never get healthy?

“These are so intertwined and that is what we ultimately have to grapple with and that means big decisions, grown-up adult discussions about the very nature of this union, this country.”

This September 30th, let all of us who are settlers on this land have the courage to begin those grown-up discussions.

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