In early May, I participated in a webinar about Bill C-15, legislation to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The event was satisfying and hopeful for several reasons. It was organized by an ecumenical group of settlers acting in solidarity, sometimes called allyship, with Indigenous peoples. Among those organizers were Steven Heinrichs, director of Indigenous-Settler Relations for Mennonite Church Canada, and Joe Gunn, executive director at the Ottawa-based Centre Oblat, a social justice office for the Oblate priests.
Thousand on call
I was pleased to learn that there were 1,000 of us participating in the call. It was a joy to have so many, most of them settler people, who wanted to hear about Bill C-15 and support its passage. Speakers included the three commissioners from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which reported in 2015. They are Murray Sinclair, who was the TRC chairperson, Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild.
They all addressed us warmly and as allies. The relationship is one that was developed during years when the TRC convened hearings into the history and legacy of residential schools. That relationship has continued, in a necessarily altered format, since the TRC issued its report.
The webinar was not primarily about residential schools, but the commissioners made direct links between the schools, reconciliation, and Bill C-15. I was struck by Sinclair’s saying that while most people in Canada could usually take their rights for granted Indigenous peoples could not. He used several historical examples: the right not to have one’s land taken away; the right to live where one wishes; to speak one’s language; to vote; and to practice one’s spirituality.
In addition, Sinclair said, the Canadian state used its laws to have Indigenous children taken away from their families and communities, and that was profoundly damaging. He said we must guarantee that all future legislation respects the rights of Indigenous peoples, and C-15 will help to make that happen.
Bill C-15 is quite similar to a Private Members Bill put forward several years ago, MP Romeo Saganash. It failed because a group of Conservative Senators opposed to it were able to delay its passage until Parliament shut down prior to the 2019 election campaign. This time it was the government that introduced the Bill. It passed in the House of Commons on May 25, by a vote of 220 to 118. The Conservatives, one Independent MP and one Green Party MP were opposed. Bill C-15 was then sent to the Senate for consideration. The fear was that, once again, a group of Senators might use tactics of delay. Faith-based groups mounted a lobby supporting the bill.
Sinclair said that lobbying against the Bill was orchestrated by the petroleum industry, which does not like the UN charter’s call for “free, informed and prior consent” before resource development occurs on land claimed by Indigenous peoples. He added that the consent clause does not provide anyone with a veto over development, but rather sates that meaningful consultation must occur before development proceeds.
Do what you did
Sinclair told people on the call that the Saganash Bill made it as far as it did in 2019 largely due to advocacy from people in faith communities. He urged us to remain active on Bill C-15. “My advice is, do what you did last time, he said. “It was effective. Speaking out, sending letters, and making calls does have an impact.”
Good news and bad
Bill C-15 did pass in the Senate on June 16 and will become the law. That is worthy of celebration but that joy has been overtaken by devastating news from the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The use of ground penetrating radar technology indicates that the school property almost certainly contains the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children who once attended there. The school was operated by the Catholic church on behalf of the federal government between 1890 and 1969 and existed as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The news about the graves should not come as a surprise. In its 2015 report, the TRC documented 3,200 deaths at residential schools, many of them from tuberculosis, an estimate that has since increased to 4,100. Columnist Allan Gregg, writing in The Globe and Mail, said that now Murray Sinclair now saying the number of deaths could be as high as 20,000.
That is astonishing and will demand a commitment to identifying the deceased children, and to as much redress as possible in whatever form it will take. I am confident that the 1,000 settlers on that May call with Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild will continue to be in solidarity as allies on the road.