Conciliation, Respect and Maturity: The TRC Opportunity

Hugh Segal, Master

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2016 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its calls to action. The symposium will take place on March 22 and March 23, 2016.

The 2016 Gordon Foundation, Massey College and School of Public Policy and Governance symposium on what a Royal Proclamation, as a definition of a new relationship between First Nations and settler communities, might comprise is not only a creative and sincere response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, it poses a multi-layer question in response to the ongoing tragedy/opportunity spectrum of our pre and post-Confederation history.

It is in the very nature of human development and social history that the biases and prejudices of an established religious or cultural establishment will, for many years, define the strengths and weaknesses of that civilization. There can be no greater truth when assessing the good and the bad of the interaction between the settler cultures that came to North America centuries ago and the established First Nations that had their own culture, languages, civil and social structure well in place before the settlers’ arrival. Presumption, hostility, condescension and missionary zeal typical of the 16th century and deep colonial biases co-existed in different degrees with cooperation, important cross-nation alliances and relationships of value. There is, over time, a tendency to forget what went well, which relationships flourished or how vital to the defence of Canada from the Americans (1812-1814), the First Nation alliances with Canadian militia and British regulars actually were. I had the privilege, during the commemoration of those alliances and that successful joint defence of Canada a century later, to present, as an Honourary Naval Captain, a War of 1812 Battle Honours flag to the Chief of the Tyendinaga First Nation aboard HMCS Kingston in Kingston harbor. But the excesses that were more negative and stigmatizing cannot be forgotten or minimized.  Condescension and a mistaken sense of superiority can lead to horrific mistakes in public policy and inter-human relations.

The Residential Schools system that tragically came into being through a toxic mix of  perceived superiority, racism, arrogance and the worst kind of cultural dismissal and marginalization, implicated churches, governments, officials and individual priests, nuns, teachers and staff in a pathology of activity that overran any constructive intent that may have existed.  The multiple scourges of cultural and personal disrespect, linguistic bigotry and broad patterns of abuse became sad but existential themes. These kinds of intergenerational punishments continue to destroy and hurt long after they are over. For survivors and their children, the pain and the debilitating effects on the human condition continue for far too long.

I remember being in the senate when Prime Minister Harper stood in his place in the House of Commons to deliver a heartfelt and sincere apology for Residential School misdeeds and victimization imposed by governments long gone, defeated or expired. What seemed to hurt and touch him the most was the travesty of taking children, at very young ages, away from their families and homes and which provoked deep and abiding pain for parent and child.  He apologized on June 11, 2008 with senior First Nations’ chiefs sitting on the floor of the House of Commons – a context repeated some days later in the Canadian Senate.  That his government found the money for a robust Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its research, distinguished commissioners, hearings and considered recommendations passes quickly from the collective mind with the angry criticism of all government failings on First Nations challenges that is so pervasive, and, at some level, enduring. That our present federal government has stepped up with engagements on an inquiry regarding missing and murdered First Nations’ women, a process to consult widely with First Nations communities before the inquiry begins and a clear engagement to positively embrace and put into effect the 94 recommendations of the TRC, speaks well of their intent, ambition and commitment on the challenge of building a new partnership with First Nations across Canada.  They too will be judged on performance versus intent.

The value of a new Royal Proclamation on Reconciliation and the courageous recommendations of the TRC, moves beyond the content and goals it might set within the framework of principles it may establish. Its goes right to the centre of our desire as mature citizens of a reasonably civil, modern and literate society to welcome a context for change that builds on a profound respect and honesty about what went right and what went wrong in our centuries-long relationship between First Nations and Canada. To look at the failures, broken promises, lost opportunities and recurring set-backs and how they came about is vital but not the sole element of the history that matters, however dominant that reality is and remains. It is also vital to calibrate the resilience, courage, determination, will to survive and strong ancestral and cultural identity that has sustained First Nations leaders and people against relentless odds. A new Royal Proclamation must reflect a national will shared between First Nations and Canadians to shape a core mutual respect for difference and diversity, history and the potential reality and hope that reflects what it is we wish to become as partners on a shared northern continent that we care for together.

Legalities, constitutional underpinnings, facts of history, pain, suffering and missed opportunities matter and must not be discounted. But they must not be allowed to inhibit or deflect the potential of what a genuine partnership, mutual respect and a spirit of sharing can inspire. Searching for both the right questions and constructive answers must be a joint undertaking driven by a will to welcome the legitimate needs and rights of others. 250 years ago, The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was an effort to define, with respect and generosity, a relationship between a sovereign and First Nation people within defined territories. A new Proclamation must be about identifying a future that engages core values of common enterprise, respected rights and historical precedence and standing. It is about what “sharing” really means in the 21st century and beyond. It is about embracing what a truly collaborative and humane future can and should be. The 2016 Gordon symposium is the beginning of a good faith and collective effort to head down that path.

Hugh Segal is currently the Master of Massey College. He formerly served as an Ontario Senator in Canada’s Upper House and Chief of Staff to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2003.

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