Truth and Reconciliation Day – “There Is No Try”

The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is a new holiday in Canada. Find out what prompted the holiday’s declaration and why I’m reflecting on the value of symbolic gestures versus practical action.

We have a new holiday here in Canada. Some of us, those who work for the federal government or federally regulated industries, have today off.

The occasion is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Setting this day aside was one of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The commission was appointed to address the abuse children suffered in the indigenous residential schools we had for over a century in this country.

Not many of the commission’s recommendations have been implemented wholeheartedly. This was an easy one; who’s against a holiday?

Reaction to the Discovery of Mass Graves

The declaration of this national day seems to be in reaction to the discovery of the remains of well over a thousand children buried in mass, unmarked graves at residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Government buildings in Canada have flown their flags at half-mast since the revelation on May 30, four months ago.

There’s no question that the residential schools were part of Canada’s Genocide. Colonialism in Canada has a lot to answer for, including the oppression of indigenous peoples. 

I was told to wear an orange shirt today, and I happen to have one that says “Every Child Matters.” I took a selfie with it earlier, and I’ll have it on when I go out.

Don’t Actions Speak Louder than Words, Flags, or T-Shirts?

Still, I wonder how much symbols matter. Don’t actions speak louder than words, or flags, or t-shirts? I have a sinking feeling these gestures are more performative than practical. I wonder how many of today’s symbolic actions will change the lives of Canada’s First Peoples for the better.

The Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University published a review in 2020, five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its calls to action. At last count, of the 94 calls to action from the commission, only a handful have been implemented. 

Observers can’t even agree on the number completed. Some say eight, others say nine, and still others say 13. The government claims that the number implemented is 16, but it can’t list which ones they are. None of these figures impress me.

Visions of Public Interest Don’t Include Indigenous People

They cite a variety of reasons for this failure. Of these, the primary obstacle is that most policy makers’ visions of the public interest don’t include the needs of indigenous people.

In addition, establishment politicians, bureaucrats and policymakers take a paternalistic attitude toward indigenous peoples. As a result, Canada’s institutions have a long history of structural racism towards aboriginal people, and too often, that’s still the reality today.

Worse, the researchers identified a growing number of non-indigenous organizations who do nothing but take advantage of the public sympathy for reconciliation. They do this by siphoning off funds and hiring token indigenous people merely for PR purposes. 

Governments Haven’t Allocated Enough Resources

As always, governments haven’t allocated enough resources to make the calls to action a reality. Underfunding indigenous programs is practically a Canadian tradition.

So, flags at half-mast, a day off, and even a day of special programming on the CBC are meaningful gestures. However, they strike me more like a “feel-good exercise” for straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class white guys like me.

It’s almost like we want to give ourselves the impression of doing something without having to accomplish anything with tangible consequences. Real results are hard, and messy, and expensive.

Procrastination Until a Crisis Forces Action

Ironically, one untouched call to action was, “develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, maintenance and protection of residential school cemeteries.” It’s a typical case of procrastination until a crisis finally forces governments into action.

Sometimes calls to action have been started and then abandoned. For example, the federal government agreed to publish an annual report on indigenous academic achievements. We haven’t seen one since the 2016-17 school year. 

In 2017, Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary. That prompted a call to action to fund commemorative projects about indigenous reconciliation as part of that year’s special events. Nothing came of it.

Mandatory Nursing and Journalism Courses Sporadic

There were calls to action for mandatory courses on indigenous issues in nursing and journalism schools. This was supposed to happen in every school. However, in reality, the implementation has been sporadic, with most students graduating without the training.

We’re supposed to have an Indigenous Language Commissioner, but the government hasn’t hired anyone. The original commission should have been superseded by a permanent National Council for Reconciliation by now, but there’s still no such body.

To be fair, the call to action to hold an Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls got done. The trouble is, that inquiry issued another batch of calls to action. Unsurpisingly, the government and other stakeholders haven’t acted on many of those either.

Stable Funding for Indigenous Games and Athletes

The government also got around to stabilizing the funding for indigenous games and athletes. I ask myself if this made it to the top of the list because politicians find multi-sport events irresistible photo opportunities.

Might these games wind up as more cases of exploitation and tokenism? Could the athletes’ performances be part of something that’s merely, well, performative?

Our freshly re-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has said, “Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough. Only with our actions can we choose a better path, and that is what our government will always try to do.”

PM Left for Vacation on Truth and Reconciliation Day

As Yoda put it in The Empire Strikes Back, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Instead of attending any events today, our Prime Minister flew his family to Tofino, British Columbia for a vacation.

That’s hardly promising, especially since he was invited to visit the gravesite in BC and declined, even though he was staying nearby. The indigenous peoples in Canada have heard successive governments promise “No more excuses! It’s time for action!” since the passage of the Indian Act 145 years ago.

I suppose it’s nice to see a sprinkling of calls to action getting done. We have our day off. We can wear something orange today to show our solidarity. We can sadly glance at the lowered flags.

We Can Even Read Fine Words in 30 Years’ Worth of Reports

We can even read the fine words in 30 years’ worth of reports from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

There’s even the opportunity to lament that “they” need to do something about poverty in indigenous communities, or treaty rights, or indigenous education, or other social justice issues.

What we can’t seem to do is figure out how to get anything done.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.


Learn more
Much work remains on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action
Calls To Action Accountability
Canada’s Genocide
No Safe Drinking Water for 25 Years
Indigenous Rights Debated While First Nations Lack Safe Water

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