IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s final report, released in 2015, documented the history and lasting legacy of Canada’s residential school system, where the government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their communities and placed them in abusive schools that aimed to erase their culture and identity. 

We know that this colonial history, which is not limited to residential schools, has led to high rates of poverty, unemployment, suicide, substance use disorder, and poorer health and education outcomes in Indigenous communities. Yet institutional responses have been inadequate, and meaningful action is lacking. 

The recent federal election, where Indigenous issues were a sideline issue, also urges us and our newly elected government to begin to create meaningful change beyond rhetoric. While Canada’s government has made progress in improving life for Indigenous peoples, it has made severe missteps along the way. Remedying them will be no easy task, but the new government should start with efforts to bridge the socioeconomic gap and public health issues facing Indigenous peoples.

U of T also can do much more on the topic of reconciliation. Last week, from October 28 to November 1, First Nations House ran events for its annual Indigenous Education Week, providing an opportunity for the U of T community to learn, reflect, and act on the pressing issue of settler-Indigenous reconciliation in this country. 

It is incumbent on young people especially to correct the wrongs of our predecessors in this era of reconciliation. It is vital, therefore, for us to reflect on where government, the university, and media stand, and how they can move forward. 

The federal government

On October 21, Canada’s federal elections concluded with Liberal Leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau winning a minority government. According to The Globe and Mail, National Chief Perry Bellegarde, the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, said that the Liberals have been the most effective first-term government in the sphere of Indigenous rights.

Examples of achievements include the government’s efforts to end boil-water advisories via upgrading water and wastewater systems, as well as forgiveness of more than a billion dollars in loans to pursue land claims.

The government’s choice to expand the pipeline demonstrates a worrying prioritization of profit over reconciliation.

However, Bellegarde also highlighted the significant socioeconomic gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians. For now, he suggests moving toward reducing the number of boil-water advisories, taking action that reflects upon the urgency of the climate crisis, protecting Indigenous languages via legislation, and giving Indigenous communities authority over child and family services.

Additionally, the Trudeau government’s push for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline has been heavily criticized by Indigenous groups. The expanded pipeline runs through numerous First Nations territories, alongside freshwater sources. Any potential defects in the pipeline threaten these communities’ access to safe drinking water. 

The government’s choice to expand the pipeline demonstrates a worrying prioritization of profit over reconciliation. 

Trudeau has miles to go to gain Indigenous peoples’ trust concerning the pipeline. Whether that means halting construction on the expansion entirely or selling a majority share to Indigenous-led shareholders, the rights and resources for Indigenous communities must be a prime concern with any decision made regarding the pipeline.

The Trudeau government’s decision to appeal the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering the payment of compensation to First Nations children and families over a “chronically underfunded child-welfare system” is further evidence of its devaluation of Indigenous reconciliation.

In doing so, Trudeau has directly contradicted his public declaration of support for Indigenous communities. While he agreed with the ruling, his excuses his appeal by citing the length of time the tribunal set as too short. However, this stance is unforgivably damaging and demoralizing. Trudeau must commit his government to reconciliatory efforts at any cost. 

Furthermore, Trudeau has received sustained criticism for his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. At its crux, Trudeau removed Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and former attorney general, from the Liberal caucus, following her refusal to let the SNC-Lavalin engineering company settle a legal case to avoid a criminal trial on corruption.

Canada’s ethics commissioner later concluded in August that Trudeau’s pressuring of Wilson-Raybould to halt her criminal investigation breached the Conflict of Interest Act.

The Varsity calls on the federal government to implement solutions backed by experts, which includes empowering Indigenous communities to manage their own community health services, further investing in infrastructure for water treatment in Indigenous communities, and improving education funding for First Nations children on reserves.

These recommendations are only the beginning. The TRC has also made additional recommendations for the federal government to follow to further reconciliation.

The elected Liberal minority government must remedy the missteps taken during Trudeau’s first term in office. The election is not an indication of success. Trudeau failed to end all boiled water advisories, as promised. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is not yet implemented. Even with a majority government, the Liberals were unable to prove themselves capable of making these changes.

For one, Canada’s government should implement recommendations by UNDRIP, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and the TRC. This is especially true as the Liberal Party, New Democratic Party, and Greens have made commitments on their platforms to implement their calls to justice.

While the publication of the MMIWG report is a big step in the right direction, it’s up to this government to make the structural changes needed for reconciliation. 

U of T 

In a direct response to the 2015 TRC report, U of T struck a steering committee to realize the report’s recommendations.

The committee has advised U of T to create dedicated Indigenous spaces at all three campuses, increase hiring of Indigenous faculty and staff, and integrate Indigenous curriculum content in its programs.

Following the committee’s report, a Faculty of Arts & Science commission recommended the construction of a new Indigenous college at UTSG.

U of T has also hired two Indigenous academic advisors, professors Suzanne Stewart and Susan Hill, in response to the TRC’s report. Their work will include investigating ways for researchers to work with Indigenous communities, as well as designing and redesigning curricula to improve education on Indigenous issues.

The Varsity calls on U of T to take a stronger stance on Indigenous issues, especially on the university’s involvement in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which threatens the land of Indigenous peoples in Hawaii.

The university has made further steps to launch Indigenous-focused initiatives, including the Deepening Knowledge Project, the Indigenous Education Network, and the TRC Implementation Committee. 

Overall, U of T has taken some meaningful steps to implement the recommendations of the TRC report. Further progress is, however, needed to ensure U of T’s contribution to Indigenous reconciliation.

The Varsity calls on U of T to take a stronger stance on Indigenous issues, especially on the university’s involvement in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which threatens the land of Indigenous peoples in Hawaii.

We further call on U of T to make a larger impact to preserve Indigenous languages and through course offerings and partnerships with Indigenous communities. 

Intercultural initiatives like the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health — which takes a specific community and socioeconomic approach to learning that strives to address all aspects affect the health outcomes of Indigenous communities — must be further developed and supported across all fields of study.

Universities are historic centres of progress and we must lead by example by integrating reconciliatory efforts into our curriculum, structures, and operational policies.

The media

Media outlets, including The Varsity, also have a responsibility for meaningful and appropriate coverage of Indigenous issues.

We must responsibly provide the context necessary to understand Indigenous issues. Journalists must be mindful to explain how present-day challenges are rooted in systems and institutions designed to eradicate Indigenous culture. 

It’s also important to understand and recognize the identity of interviewees. Indigenous people are composed of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Proper representation stems from the understanding that within these groups are a rich variety of cultures and languages who deserve nuanced portrayals in the media. 

The final MMIWG report has made recommendations for responses by media outlets to address the issue of systemic violence faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

These recommendations include ensuring “authentic and appropriate representation of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people,” to avoid the spread of negative and discriminatory stereotypes.

We at The Varsity strive to do better in the quality and quantity of our coverage of Indigenous issues on campus by actively pursuing Indigenous stories and voices that would otherwise go unheard.

The commission has also called on the media to support “Indigenous people sharing their stories, from their perspectives, free of bias, discrimination, and false assumptions, and in a trauma-informed and culturally sensitive way.”

Such stereotypes include typecasting Indigenous people as “warriors, victims, or magical creatures.” At times, even when the media tries to positively capture Indigenous resistance and action, it can still perpetuate stereotypes. Consider when a cartoonist portrayed Wilson-Raybould challenging Trudeau in the context of the SNC-Lavalin scandal while wearing feathers and a leather fringe; the second cartoonist to face a backlash over stereotyping Wilson-Raybould during the affair. 

Other biases include centering coverage on the platitudes of addiction, alcohol use disorder, suicide, unemployment, and poverty, which further the stereotype of victimization.

We at The Varsity strive to do better in the quality and quantity of our coverage of Indigenous issues on campus by actively pursuing Indigenous stories and voices that would otherwise go unheard. Whether through our News, Comment, and Science sections, we firmly believe that all aspects of our paper must meaningfully and responsibly commit to such coverage.

We will strive to continue our efforts to cover Indigenous issues in ways that are sufficient, responsible, and well-informed, and welcome criticism and feedback from you about our coverage.

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