It has been 20 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued a lengthy report calling for changes in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as well as governments across Canada. Not much happened as a result. But now, in the wake of a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) led by Justice Murray Sinclair, there is new hope for reconciliation, not to mention a renewed relationship altogether.
RCAP and residential schools
Back in 1991, RCAP was appointed by Brian Mulroney’s government after an armed standoff at Oka, Qué. There were many issues to consider, but an RCAP commissioner recalls that in almost every community they visited, the painful issue of residential schools was raised. Survivors eventually launched a class action law suit against the government and the churches that operated the schools, and they received compensation. Still, they also wanted to be heard, so the TRC was created, not as a government commission but rather one commanded by survivors and financed by the payments made to them.
When it reported in June 2015, the TRC made 94 recommendations. The Harper government, at the time, was mostly non-committal. But the Trudeau Liberals have promised to accept and act upon all of the recommendations. Politically, this is the most hopeful sign in decades. Trudeau has also appointed Justice Sinclair to the Senate, where presumably, he’ll continue to advocate on behalf of the recommendations he made.
One of those recommendations calls on Canadian governments and churches to adopt and comply with principles outlined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The TRC also wants governments and churches to publicly repudiate the doctrine of discovery, which granted sovereignty to European colonizers who were deemed to have “discovered” lands that were already populated by Indigenous peoples.
The TRC says that the discovery doctrine originated from 15th century papal bulls, which purported to give Portuguese and Spanish monarchs the right to any lands that they encountered because they were spreading Christianity to non-European peoples.
In late March, leaders from seven churches and religious organizations met in Ottawa, committing to support these and other TRC recommendations. Catholics, who administered 60 percent of the residential schools, chose not to be involved. Catholic leaders, however, issued their own statements. One supported the UN declaration while the other stopped just short of repudiating the discovery doctrine even while “rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind [it].” Perhaps the church felt that rejecting the doctrine would also mean rejecting the bulls published by medieval popes, and that would be one step too far.
Martahon of hope
At another Ottawa event involving Protestant church leaders, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Susan Johnson used the metaphor of a marathon race to describe the journey toward reconciliation. Some people, she said, are already at the starting line while others are so far back in the crowd of runners that they haven’t even heard the starting gun. We’re all running the same race at different speeds, she added, but the ultimate goal is reconciliation.
This piece appeared in as a blog on the United Church Observer website on April 14, 2016.