The Urgency to Make a Personal Commitment

This article is the tenth in a series on Indigenous Communities and Philanthropy, guest edited by The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

SUMMARY: Mary Simon, OC, QC, is a former President of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and she was an Honorary Witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Beginning with a renewed personal awareness following the Government of Canada’s Statement of Apology in 2008 and reflecting on a colleague’s question, “Why can’t we have a Canada where everyone shares the benefits and potential this country offers?” Simon describes the progress of Canadians for a New Partnership in working toward this goal and she offers seven steps all Canadians can take to this end.

RÉSUMÉ: Mary Simon, O.C., O.Q., a été présidente d’Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, une organisation représentant les Inuits du Canada, et témoin honoraire auprès de la Commission Vérité et Réconciliation. Elle aborde la nouvelle prise de conscience qui a été déclenchée chez elle à la suite de la Présentation d’excuses aux anciens élèves des pensionnats indiens, par le gouvernement du Canada en 2008, et d’une réflexion personnelle suscitée par une question d’un collègue : « Pourquoi, au Canada, tous ne peuvent-ils pas profiter des avantages et du potentiel de ce pays? » Elle décrit ensuite les progrès réalisés par le mouvement Les Canadiens pour un nouveau partenariat, qui veut réaliser cet objectif, et propose sept étapes que peuvent prendre tous les Canadiens à cette fin.

 

In 2008, I stood with other Indigenous leaders before the Prime Minister of Canada in the House of Commons to receive the government’s apology to former students of residential schools. I remember my words at the time well:  “I stand here today, ready to work with you to craft new solutions and new arrangements based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility.”

I was then President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – Canada’s national Inuit organization; but those words were not so much political in nature, as they were personal. They were said from my heart because I saw myself as an individual taking responsibility for making the changes needed to reconcile with the past and move forward.

The roots of reconciliation reach back to before that historic acknowledgement by the Government of Canada. Individuals, leaders, communities, churches and many others have been working to address the cultural, social, economic and legal inequalities that had been imposed on Indigenous peoples for many years.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the Statement of Apology was a critical step in the larger reconciliation journey; and it came as a result of the resolve, work and sacrifice of residential school survivors, their families and their communities. These brave survivors took reconciliation another significant step forward by gifting us with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of our Settlement Agreement.

Survivors bared their souls to open the eyes, the heads and the hearts of people all across Canada and to shine a light on the darkest chapter in Canada’s history. Over 6,000 witnesses told their stories to cast away the shadows – and give hope to the many broken individuals and families beginning their healing journeys. These survivors were also the voice of those who didn’t get to tell their stories.

Not long after the apology, the Idle No More movement began. It was a show of peaceful resistance by Indigenous peoples that stirred discussions across the country. It also caused the children of my friend, Stephen Kakfwi, former Premier of the Northwest Territories, to challenge him to do something about it.

Stephen said to me, “My adult children expressed their despair and frustration about the divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and asked: ‘“Why can’t we have a Canada where everyone shares the benefits and potential this country offers?’”

I was one of the dozens of people Stephen Kakfwi contacted when he reached out to help answer this question. He was overwhelmed by the response from Canadians including national Indigenous political and cultural leaders past and present, former Prime Ministers, a retired Supreme Court Judge, and a former Auditor General of Canada.

Out of these conversations grew the idea of Canadians for a New Partnership (CFNP). These individuals – people already actively involved in reconciliation – stepped up to take on an even greater role and serve on the Board of this new organization. The idea that grew out of a conversation between a father and his children now has branches that reach every part of Canada.

I’m sure my reaction to Stephen’s invitation to become involved as a CFNP Co-Chair was similar to others questioning whether I had the time or capacity to tackle another initiative.

For the past several years, I’ve been committed to developing and implementing First Canadians, Canadians First: A National Strategy on Inuit Education. This is a comprehensive initiative to engage with Inuit leaders, governments and northern education authorities to implement ten essential recommendations on closing the gap in our education systems.

The moment that made up my mind about Stephen’s invitation came in March 2014 in Edmonton during the emotionally wrenching hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the abuses inflicted under Canada’s Residential School System.

As an Honorary Witness at the TRC hearings I heard the powerful voices of those who survived unimaginable treatment at residential schools. The survivors described shameful physical and sexual abuse. Some had witnessed children dying. Others recounted painful loneliness as they suffered the debilitating deprivation of family and home life while at the same time being stripped of their culture and language.

Suddenly it was clear. Stephen wasn’t asking for a favour – he was giving me an opportunity to work on a national initiative that embraces everything I have worked towards for more than forty years.

What is Canadians for a New Partnership?

Canadians for a New Partnership has one clear purpose – to build a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and all others in Canada.

Our approach to reconciliation is set on principles that were part of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “mutual recognition, mutual respect, mutual responsibility, cooperation and sharing.”

When we began volunteering our time and energy, none of us believed that this would be easy. None of us are under any illusion that there will be a quick fix for the frayed and broken relationship that has divided us.

As a start, each member signed the Declaration of Canadians for a New Partnership. This is a commitment to forge a new partnership that “is positive, healthy, productive and meaningful for the generations to come” and is founded on the principle that First Peoples and other Canadians can “build a strong economy and values-based society that will benefit present and future generations.” It now includes the signature of today’s Prime Minister along with that of over 5,000 other Canadians.

We are often asked if CFNP has political affiliations. Let me be clear – we do not. Neither are we an advocacy organization, nor do we see ourselves as being in the business of developing and recommending policies, programs and public campaigns.

Rather, we consider ourselves a movement. One that identifies the critical issues confronting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians – and then looks for ways to openly and honestly talk to one another and agree on a way forward that is based on mutual respect, rights (including treaty and land rights), and equality for all.

Our members – all volunteers – are committed to carrying our message, wherever they go. Many remain active on the national speaking circuit, in academia, business, and politics and all of us speak out on the issues at every opportunity.

I find in my own work, that regardless of the audience or location, it is quite easy to relate present negative socio-economic conditions faced by a disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples in Canada to the broken relationships of the past. When I do this (and other CFNP members tell me their experiences are similar), I see a positive shift in the audience. People noticeably appear to concentrate even further.

For me, it’s an indication that open-minded Canadians know deep in their hearts that our country must change. We can do better.

All of us in CFNP believe that reconciliation is the biggest social policy issue of our time. Now and into the future, policy development needs to infuse reconciliation in all areas that impact life in Canada – not simply allocate it to areas that have typically been identified under a narrow category of ‘Indigenous’ issues. Our policies need to catch up with the growing understanding that this isn’t just an Indigenous issue – it’s a Canadian issue. Endorsement and implementation of the TRC recommendations by various levels of government, (and other sectors of society) is cause for optimism.

What we want to accomplish is a new dialogue about the relationship between Canadians and First Peoples. We want to contribute to the necessary changing of attitudes. Because reconciliation will be inevitable if we honour our differences, rethink our shared history, and build new relationships.

Challenges

Early in our work, we reviewed the results of surveys on Canadian attitudes in relation to Indigenous issues. I don’t think anyone was surprised.

Generally, individual Canadians acknowledge the inequities and injustices perpetuated on Indigenous peoples but feel they are not directly responsible. Nor do they think there is anything they can do to change things.

Their thinking goes something like this, ‘I didn’t cause the problems and I am not responsible for solving them!’ Equally troubling is the view that ‘these problems are of their own making.’ There are other disturbing views, concluding with a proposed solution that will never happen: ‘I just wish they (Indigenous peoples) would fit in and join mainstream Canada.’ For the past 400 years Indigenous peoples have resisted full assimilation and we will not agree to it in the next 400 either.

One of the challenges for change is that most of these views are held by people who are among the 62% of Canadians who admit they have no contact with Indigenous peoples at all. However, as disappointing as that is, we are encouraged because we know among those Canadians who live near and know Indigenous individuals there is a much different attitude. These Canadians tend to support new initiatives to address social and economic injustices.

CFNP hopes to change the negative opinions to one of inclusion. As part of our mandate we highlight some of many examples of Indigenous peoples and communities in Canada that are succeeding, partnerships between Indigenous / non-Indigenous businesses, governments and industry, and also the potential our people have for success when there is access to new opportunities and quality education that remains true to our cultures and traditions.

Also, we are grateful for the exceptional work of the TRC recognizing that some of our Métis and Inuit brothers and sisters were excluded from fully participating in the hearings. They must be included in our thoughts and their voices must be heard.

How can you contribute? 

CFNP believes that philanthropic institutions have within their means and mandate the ability and responsibility to provide the platforms and financial support needed for the kind of dialogue that is now essential for our future. As CFNP Director, the Rt. Hon. Joe Clark put very clearly: “It is critical for Canada to hear, heal and move forward together. Its whole future will suffer if we fail to reconcile with the past.”

Here are some suggestions for how you can move this era of reconciliation forward:

  1. Read the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These recommendations lay the foundation for a stronger, healthier future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples through change in the areas of child welfare, language, culture, health, and justice.
  1. Join the CFNP Declaration where individuals pledge their intent to rebuild trust, to acknowledge Aboriginal rights, and to come together in solidarity with shared responsibility and co-operation. The Declaration is also a clear message to decision-makers that Canadians want a new approach and the notion of partnership.
  1. Ask what your schools are teaching about Aboriginal Canadian history and culture. The road to reconciliation begins when all Canadians have a better understanding of our shared history, our different realities and our divergent world views. This starts with every province and territory, including our own Indigenous-run schools, developing and implementing curriculum that teaches Inuit, First Nation and Métis history, culture and contributions to Canadian society.
  1. Contact your city, town or municipal council and encourage them to pass resolutions supporting and implementing the TRC Calls to Action if they haven’t already. Why not expand this to include your union or community service organization?
  1. If you don’t already know it, find out the name of the local Indigenous community and traditional territory that you are part of and encourage your work, place of workshop, and educational institutions to acknowledge it. Go further and include that community as part of your events. Can Inuit throat singers be part of a school opening?
  1. Invite CFNP to speak at your next general meeting, or at university events and community gatherings to promote discussions around reconciliation.
  1. Speak up and dispel harmful myths about Indigenous peoples when you recognize poorly informed discussions around Aboriginal peoples. Be part of sharing positive news about Indigenous achievements and successes.

First Peoples also have a role to play. We need to speak out against racism towards non-Indigenous peoples when it arises in our own conversations, and indicate we too want to be part of this renewed relationship. Many of our people, whether they be Inuit, First Nation, or Métis need to ask themselves if they have reached out to their non-Indigenous neighbours and if they have listened to their point of view.

Reconciliation is achievable

It is a critical time in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. Our nation is confronting and recognizing the cruel history of assimilation policies while at the same time seeing the existing strength of all Indigenous communities and the enormous opportunities of the future.

We each have an opportunity to contribute to reconciliation. Let’s build on the progress that has been made.

I say to you now in 2016, nearly eight years after the Apology, that I know that it is difficult and that the issues are complex and daunting. We’ve already been on this road for a long time and we’ve still got many miles ahead of us. But every step we take together – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – means a better life for all of our children and grandchildren.

I ask you to make this a personal commitment and help move it forward and make the journey easier and the destination closer. Be part of finding solutions and common ground – and support the building of new partnerships between Inuit, First Nation, Métis and other Canadians. We will all be richer for it.

 

 

Mary Simon, OC, QC is Co-Chair of Canadians for a New Partnership, former President of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, former Chairperson of the National Committee on Inuit Education and was an Honorary Witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.