2021 was a challenging year that many of us would like to put behind us.
One issue that grabbed national and international headlines was the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School. This has led to a public awakening to Indigenous matters in this country that I hadn’t previously seen in my entire career.
This has meant a huge uptake for knowledge about the history of Canada and how it relates to colonization and the past treatment of Indigenous Peoples. Many companies have reached out to me to help, mostly because their employees are demanding it. This is an exciting yet daunting task. And, hopefully, it won’t fade away, as public interest in these matters has often done in the past .
When looking to progress on matters related to Indigenous reconciliation, there are constant criticisms about the lack of improvement to this regard. But what is “progress”? I find myself struggling to define reasonable metrics for First Nations reconciliation.
To me reconciliation is about a multitude of First Nations inequities that include the political, legal, socioeconomic and cultural rights of First Nations people and communities. Some of these indicators aren’t easy to track and have a longer span than political cycles. Here are some things I think will be evidence of progress.
•Increased completion of infrastructure projects in Indigenous communities (not just increased budgetary commitments);
•Increased education completion rates at all levels, but especially Grade 12;
•Improved socioeconomic conditions for Indigenous communities;
•Decreased child removals from Indigenous families – the continued removal of children perpetuates the impacts of residential schools and undermines the fabric of our communities;
•Increased First Nations adoption of treaties, sectoral governance agreements or any other reconciliation table with other levels of government;
•Increased First Nations participation with industry either with impact benefit agreements or other relationship agreements;
•Increased participation from First Nations for capacity and governance development;
•Increased focus from all of corporate Canada in including Indigenous matters in frameworks for equity, diversity and inclusivity or for environmental, social and governance frameworks; and
•Increased public education on Indigenous matters in Canada.
In spite of the constant criticism levelled at provincial and federal governments, several important initiatives are in place to advance all of these issues.
In the summer, federal legislation was passed in relation to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). With the federal election now over, there is a clear focus on getting through COVID-19, economic recovery, faster progress on climate action and faster action on reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, including implementing UNDRIP in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to advance their rights. Canada has recently reached a compensation deal for First Nations Child and Family Services matters related to an ongoing Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling. The government has set aside $40 billion for compensation to fulfil its obligations.
Provincially, Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin has reported that he is finalizing a plan in co-operation with Indigenous Peoples in B.C. with a five-year road map to advance reconciliation and implement UNDRIP. This is two years after UNDRIP legislation was introduced provincially.
While these are all positive steps, the road to reconciliation is long and arduous. Capacity for governments, Indigenous communities and industry are a major concern. On the government side, the public service has gaps that will make fulfilling political commitments challenging. Companies’ participation in reconciliation must be a part of the solution, whether it is at their operational or governance level.
We can also expect to see continuing conflict such as what we have seen with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Governments must provide for a sustained investment for communities to participate in reconciliation and in a way that provides for Indigenous internal reconciliation. The Wet’suwet’en matter is an example of the toll everyone is paying for not fostering Indigenous reconciliation.
The process of reconciliation will be much longer than some of the shorter-term issues governments need to manage. I don’t see a way around this. This also leads me to believe that managing everyone’s expectations will be critical. We will all need to continue reconciliation work in Canada. Change is underway even though some of it is hard to see. •
Kim Baird is chancellor of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, owns her own consulting business that provides advisory services on Indigenous matters and participates in board governance in various sectors.