Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a 600 km walk supports UN declaration

A group of people from various faith groups has walked 600 kilometres in a Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights
Walking the talk. Photo courtesy Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its final report on Indian residential schools in June 2015. The TRC commissioners bluntly described those schools as instruments of “cultural genocide.” They were equally frank in describing the complicity of Canadian churches, which operated most of the schools on behalf of the federal government. Continue reading Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, a 600 km walk supports UN declaration

Colten Boushie shooting in Saskatchewan fuels backlash

The shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan prompted a bigoted backlash on social media.
Supporters of the family of Colten Boushie, who was shot to death, gather at the North Battleford, Sask. courthouse on Aug. 18. Photo by Peter Garden

Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old First Nations man, was shot to death on Aug. 9. He was in a farm yard near Biggar, Sask., about 100 km west of Saskatoon. Gerald Stanley, a 54-year-old farmer, has now been charged with second-degree murder. According to Boushie’s family, he and four friends were returning from swimming at a river when they sought help for a flat tire at a farm. Stanley’s family, meanwhile, issued a statement through their lawyer, saying that what occurred on that day is not as simple as what has been portrayed.

Racist comments on Facebook   

Either way, Boushie’s death has unleashed a torrent of public emotion and comment on social media. On Aug. 18, roughly 200 people gathered peacefully in support of the Boushie family at the North Battleford, Sask. courthouse, where Stanley was arraigned. Elsewhere, a Facebook page called Saskatchewan Farmers Group included racially toxic comments following Boushie’s shooting. One commenter, who wrote that “his [Stanley’s] only mistake was leaving three witnesses,” is the elected reeve of a rural municipality in southern Saskatchewan. The page has since been taken down and the once-outspoken reeve is now unavailable for comment.

Of course, the self-described Farmers Group cannot claim to represent all farmers. The Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union, a modestly sized but well-established organization, issued a news release of their own, condemning racist comments, including those on the Farmers Group page.

Premier Wall says “stop”       



The torrent of racist comment on social media was such that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall pleaded for it all to stop. “Racism has no place in Saskatchewan,” Wall wrote on his Facebook page. His post received more than 500 comments — most of them supportive — but there were others that were unrepentant: “Wanna stop racism? Revamp those obsolete treaties and make every adult in Saskatchewan pay taxes.” Another said: “The very sad truth is that [by] being ‘white,’ we can be discriminated upon more than any other race and no one faces any repercussions.”

The treaties



These latter two comments capture a sentiment that fuels the antagonism toward First Nations people in our country. The original inhabitants occupied and used the land for tens of thousands of years but were forced by the British Crown — and a succession of Canadian governments — to give most of it up. In the Prairie provinces, they surrendered that land in seven treaties negotiated in the 1870s. As a result, the First Nations were shunted onto small reserves to make way for European settlement. It’s both ignorant and malicious for the descendants of settlers who benefit from those land surrenders to now say that the treaties should be torn up.

Who’s on top? 



The second comment — that it’s really white people who are discriminated against more than anyone else — is simply not true. How is it that the descendants of settlers whose governments forced First Nations from their land and into poverty can somehow see settlers as the victims? Indeed, the bigots and the foolhardy on social media have had their day. But surely, we won’t allow them to prevail in the near and distant future.

This piece appeared on the United Church Observer website on August 24, 2016.

Taking the pledge: The TRC reading challenge

A B.C. writer is challenging Canadians to read the entire report of the Truth and Reconciliation Comission
TRC Commissioners Wilton Littlechild, Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, June 2015

It’s been a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report into the history and legacy of Indian residential schools. Yet most of us have probably read little more than snippets of it or none at all. Now, Duncan, B.C.-based writer Jennifer Manuel has created an online campaign asking Canadians to pledge that we’ll read the entire 380-page document. Manuel calls it The TRC Reading Challenge. When she began in April, she hoped to have just 1,000 people sign on, but nearly 3,000 have already done so.

History of the schools

The June 2015 report documents what the TRC heard from 6,700 survivors and witnesses over six years of hearings and research. For more than 130 years, Indian residential schools were organized and largely financed by the government but operated by Canadian churches. An estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes, often forcibly, to attend. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and — in some cases — sexual abuse.

TRC commissioners Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson have described what happened in the schools as “cultural genocide,” a term that has also been used by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, former Prime Minister Paul Martin and others. As such, the report provides 94 recommendations that challenge Canadians to redeem the past by walking in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Reasons to read the report

Jennifer Manuel says that there are three underlying principles behind her TRC Challenge: that we care about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada; that we believe improving the relationship requires dialogue, which means listening to truths expressed by Indigenous peoples; and that we prefer to read the TRC report yourself rather than relying on others to interpret it for us.

Aboriginal Day and beyond

Manuel wants those who make the pledge to begin their reading by National Aboriginal Day on June 21. On that day, she’ll use the TRC Challenge website to publish the names of those who have made the promise. “Take as long as you need to read it,” she says. “It’s not a race. It’s a commitment.”

She also hopes that anyone taking up the challenge will invite at least one other person to do so: a friend, a local city councillor, MLA, MP, local news reporter or national journalist. She says that invitation can be made in person, on the phone or by doing so publicly using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.

I’m among those who have read only portions of the TRC report. It’s a rich resource, both in its historical detail and in the recommendations it makes for reconciliation. No longer is it possible to say that we don’t know what has happened in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the past 150 years.

Download for free

You can find the TRC report online and download it for free. If you prefer to order and pay for the book, you can do so here.

This piece was published as a United Church Observer blog on June 3, 2016.  

Truth and Reconciliation, there’s hope but it’s a marathon

Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair
Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, in June 2015

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.

TRC recommendations

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.

Church promises

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.

Cindy Blackstock’s victory for First Nations children

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

Since the June release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s preliminary report on the history of Indian residential schools, there has been heightened talk about how non-Indigenous Canadians can become better neighbours to those who are indigenous. Now, a ruling issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) on January 26 provides yet another illustration of the shared road ahead. Continue reading Cindy Blackstock’s victory for First Nations children

Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead

Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord
Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord

As Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau stood before an election night crowd in Montreal on October 19, he quoted former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, saying: “Sunny ways my friends, sunny ways.”  Referring to his Liberal party’s convincing upset victory in capturing 184 seats, well beyond the 99 for the Conservatives and 44 for the NDP, Trudeau said, “This is what positive politics can do.” Continue reading Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead

Election 2015: Faith groups have lots of questions for candidates

Peace Tower Clock on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo by Creative Commons
Peace Tower Clock on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo by Creative Commons

Early in August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper set in motion a 78-day election campaign, the longest since 1872 when candidates traveled on steam-driven trains and horse-drawn buggies. Despite the early call, a number of faith-based groups have already published election kits. For example, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) has prepared a 15-page summary of issues, which includes questions that people can ask of political candidates. The kit also contains information on how to organize and conduct all candidates’ meetings, and a guide for writing letters to the editor and using social media to talk about the issues. Continue reading Election 2015: Faith groups have lots of questions for candidates

Canadian churches challenged by Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair
Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has released a summary of its final report into the history and legacy of Indian residential schools. The first paragraph in the Introduction describes Canada’s entire Aboriginal policy and its implementation as “cultural genocide.”

The TRC defines that term as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.” This includes seizing lands, the forcible relocation of populations, restrictions upon movement, banning languages and spiritual practices, disrupting families and the removal of children.
This is strong language but Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and former Prime Minister Paul Martin have both used the same term in recent months. Continue reading Canadian churches challenged by Truth and Reconciliation Commission