Two distinguished citizens are among those calling for a new relationship based upon trust and respect between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians. Sheila Fraser is Canada’s former auditor general. Richard Van Loon served as a senior civil servant, including stints as an associate deputy minister at the federal departments of health and Indian affairs before becoming the president of Carleton University between 1996 and 2005.
Van Loon and Fraser spent two hours in an Ottawa Unitarian church on May 20 speaking to a group of about 120 people and responding to their questions and comments. Mary Simon, who has served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and for six years as president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was to speak but had to cancel due to illness.
First Nations have waited
Fraser, who was Canada’s auditor general from 2001 to 2011, said that her audits into education, housing and land claims negotiations showed that the situation facing Indigenous peoples was not improving. “Progress was slow,” she said. “Services on reserves were not keeping pace with services elsewhere. First Nations have waited too long for services that are available to other Canadians.”
Fraser is among a group of prominent individuals who have created an organization called Canadians for a New Partnership, dedicated to leading a dialogue aimed at building a new partnership between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians. Fraser said the tangible results should be better living conditions, education, and economic opportunities.
Break down barriers
She said that more than 60% of Canadians surveyed indicate that they have no contact with Indigenous people. “You recognize that a new relationship is needed,” she said to those at the Ottawa event, which was in turn organized by a local group called Issues That Matter. “Do everything that you can to learn more and to break down barriers,” Fraser said. She asked audience members to visit the Canadians for a New Partnership website and to sign an on line pledge promising that they will take steps to heighten awareness and increase understanding about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and their contributions.
A partnership gone sour
Van Loon, who was to have moderated the discussion, agreed to speak in the absence of Ms. Simon. He said that during and after early European contact in the 1600s there was a partnership between nations, one in which Indigenous peoples often held the more powerful hand. It was after the mid-19th century that the relationship changed following the widespread onslaught of disease and the destruction of the bison and other animals.
“We have no choice but to act,” Van Loon said. “We know what we have to do but we are not doing it well.” He said that Indigenous peoples have gone to the courts in frustration over having other Canadians ignore their rights to land and real consultation before resource developments occur. “Supreme Court and other judgments affirm that Aboriginal rights exist and that they are not an empty box.” Van Loon said the other reason to act is simply that “it makes sense in so many ways.”
TRC final report
A number of the audience members on May 20 referred to the importance attached to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) releasing its final report into the history and legacy of residential schools on June 3. There are numerous supporting events planned by churches and faith groups to renew the call for a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers.
Fraser said she attended three of the listening events organized by the TRC and had heard some “pretty horrific things.” She said, “I hope that the TRC recommendations are substantive and that they will be heeded. I am hopeful that things will change.”