Confronted with Canada’s grim history, we must strive to do better on inclusion

By on 19/07/2021 | Updated on 19/07/2021
No celebrating this year: many citizens changed their plans to celebrate Canada Day following the discovery of the graves of Indigenous children. Credit: Jason Hafso/Unsplash

Letter from Ottawa: The discovery of unmarked graves of children near former Indian residential schools has created waves of shock and anger across Canada. Michael Wernick, former deputy minister for Indigenous affairs and clerk of the Privy Council, hopes that out of the pain will come a renewed commitment to reconciliation and social inclusion

On the face of it, this Canada Day on July 1 should have been an exuberant one. The third wave of the pandemic has subsided, and every week brings some incremental easing of restrictions and a drop in cases and hospitalisations. Our death rate from COVID-19 is a third of that in the US and UK.  A team effort by federal, provincial, and local authorities working with community groups has driven vaccination rates to among the highest in the world – and it is more consistent across geography, economic class, and race than most other countries.

We are at the point that people can turn their minds to family gatherings, trips, the resumption of concerts and sporting events, and the kind of summer we Canadians deserve after enduring our winter.

The run up to Canada Day always includes other notable dates including National Indigenous Day on June 21 and the national holiday in Quebec on June 24.  Previously, the week has drawn Canadians out of their usual reluctance to take some pleasure and pride in the remarkable society that has been built here and to join others in celebration and unity.

By objective measures, Canadians should have a lot to celebrate. The economic growth that has propelled us into the G7 has been more inclusive than in other nations. We have a high rate of female participation in the labour force, and one of the highest rate of post-secondary attainment in the world. We are custodians of an incredible natural heritage: clean air, water and forests, and an expansive geography that has become part of our identity.

Much closer to the core of our self-image is the concept of diversity. We like to think of ourselves as a welcoming society, and for good reasons. Canada has taken in immigrants at a rate of around 1% of the population per year for decades. One in five Canadians were born in another country; this rises to one in two in Toronto, our largest metropolitan centre. Of our newcomers, 85% become citizens, and overall, the earnings of immigrants and refugees match those of the general population about a decade after arrival. Our cities rank near the top of indices of liveability, and outward signs of inequality and poverty are subtle by the standards of many other societies.

We like to think we are well regarded around the world. We quietly care about our brand and reputation.

Jolted from our world view

But this year, Canadians have been jolted and had their views deeply challenged. The immediate reason is the discovery, at four sites as I write this, of the unmarked graves of children. They are among the 150,000 Indigenous children who were forced to attend the 139 “residential schools” that operated between 1831 and 1996. These schools were funded by the national government, but most were run by one of several church denominations.

All those statistics of accomplishment seem less important right now. One can sense a palpable swirl of emotions, running from sadness through shock and dismay to anger and a need to lash out. Some communities cancelled Canada Day events or scrambled to change the programming and the tone to a more sombre and reflective mood. On the day, many Canadians wore orange – adopted as the colour of commemoration for the children – instead of the traditional red and white.

The existence of the residential schools and the tragic history of neglect, abuse and brazen cultural assimilation is not news. In 2005 a settlement was reached on what remains the largest class action litigation in our history. The government paid financial awards to 28,000 people who had experienced abuse in the residential schools, and “common experience” payments to all 79,000 living former students, for a total of CDN$3.2 billion (US$2.5bn).

In 2008 the then-prime minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and delivered an apology by the Government of Canada. From then until 2015 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered the stories of survivors, documented the history, and issued a landmark report with 94 calls to action. Reconciliation has become a legal doctrine in jurisprudence as well as the dominant language of discourse about Indigenous issues. In 2017, when Canada marked its 150th birthday, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples was one of four core themes running through the year.

Yet something about the recent imagery of unmarked graves and the stark realisation that so many children died, far from homes and families, has created fresh waves of shock that will reverberate for months to come, especially as it is inevitable that more graves will be found. The closest analogy would be the impact on the global conscience in 2015 of the photo of the little migrant boy, Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a beach in Greece.

Through the pain and sadness

It is difficult to know where all this energy will flow in the coming months and years. Some of it has been directed in anger: several churches have been burned, statues have been decapitated and toppled. There are demands to rename streets, buildings and institutions. The language of “genocide” may trigger activity in international bodies. There are stirrings of calls for reparations. China has tried to exploit the situation to divert attention away from its own sins. 

Meanwhile, the government finally selected as the next Governor General Mary Simon, an Inuit who attended a residential school. Like New Zealand, Canada will have an Indigenous woman as the embodiment of the Crown. This gesture of reconciliation was not without risk, as Simon doesn’t speak French, but she is an astute choice with institutional and historical resonance.

As a practitioner who spent many years in Indigenous policy – including eight as deputy minister of the federal department responsible for Indigenous and northern affairs – it seems to me that there may be a window, however long or brief, to channel this energy into real structural reforms. There is an opportunity to do the hard things, not the easy symbolic ones, and to do right by today’s Indigenous children.

This must start with giving them the best education we possibly can so they grow up equipped for the 21st century, confident and secure in their identity and ready to contribute to the work of the ongoing project that is Canada. We won’t solve social marginalisation without tackling economic participation. We also need to confront the tough questions around effective governance. We need to talk – respectfully and openly – about the difficulties around ensuring effective, accountable and transparent governance at Indigenous governments and institutions.

All of this will have to be done together in an environment where trust may be elusive. As much as possible, we need to shield these issues from partisan gamesmanship.

This year we have been confronted by a troubled history and the realisation we still have so much to do to achieve reconciliation. It was not a year for exuberant celebrations. But we have shown a will and a capacity to widen the circle of inclusion before. Out of the pain and sadness, it is possible to imagine a renewal of that commitment and persistent striving to do better. This is what the next Canada Days can be about, when we once again are able to gather in communities and come together as a country.

Michael Wernick, the former clerk of the Privy Council and head of the Civil Service of Canada, writes regularly for GGF. His previous articles cover topics including today’s opportunities for civil service reform; the tension between bilingualism and other forms of diversity; and the lessons of Quebec’s independence movement.

About Michael Wernick

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