It was an exceptional week in Vancouver for First Nations rights. Last week, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada held large, public sessions in the city consisting of witnesses and testimonials by victims and survivors of Canada’s Aboriginal residential school system.
The Commission hearings and many related events culminated yesterday with a ‘Walk for Reconciliation’ in which several tens of thousands of people walked through downtown Vancouver to express affirmation of, and solidarity with, the revival and progress of Aboriginal culture, nationhood and justice. The walk was initiated by Reconciliation Canada, a partnership of the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society andTides Canada Initiatives Society.* The charitable organization held a week of events in parallel with the Commission hearings.
The Vancouver Sun says 70,000 took part in the Walk, though several participants told this writer the number was less than half that. The route centered on the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. It is Canada’s poorest inner-city district, with a large Aboriginal population. Many of its residents have migrated from economically marginalized First Nations communities throughout the province. The location of the Walk in that neighbourhood sent a powerful message that the deepgoing social injustices prevailing there are unresolved and must be addressed by governments and civil society.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created by the Canadian government as part of the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007. Its existence is a measure of the achievements of the struggle for First Nations sovereignty dating back to the rise of the Indian sovereignty (‘Red Power”) movement in the 1960s. Those achievements are now deeply etched into the political and social fabric and consciousness of Canadians. But as the Commission hearings and related events during the past week showed, the struggle is far from achieving the twin goals of political sovereignty social justice.
First and foremost among Walk participants were Aboriginal peoples. Many came from the farthest regions of the province.
Large numbers of members of church congregations took part. They were coming from institutions that were integral to the attempted genocide of First Nations that marked the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in Canada. Church-run residential schools were a key instrument of cultural genocide.
Members of the Japanese-Canadian community joined the Walk. One participant told CBC Radio that while her people suffered enormously during and following World War Two as a result of the internment policy of the Canadian government, that experience pales in comparison to what Aboriginal people have endured and suffered.
The Walk kicked off with stage greetings and presentations. That featured Bernice King, daughter of the legendary, U.S. civil rights movement figures Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott-King. King spoke of what she had witnessed during the past week as she visited remote First Nations communities in British Columbia and learned of their difficult history in Canada.
Asked the day before by the Vancouver Sun about the residential school system, King termed the policy “inexcusable and almost embarrassing.”
“We’ve created this wonderful world neighbourhood, but we have not found a way to create a brotherhood and sisterhood… if we don’t, we’re going to perish together as fools.”
The Commission’s deliberations are an ongoing point of political conflict with the federal government of Canada because of the government’s stalling in releasing all of the documents pertaining to Indian policy and practices that it holds. There are an estimated 4.1 million documents that the government has not released to date. The Commission’s mandate is supposed to expire next year. This has given rise to a movement demanding that the government “honour the apology” for residential schools that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally declared in 2008. That apology will be compromised, rights activists argue, if the TRC is not given free reign to examine the history.
The urgency and importance of releasing all documentation, and perhaps a clue as to the government’s foot dragging, was underscored two months ago when a researcher at the University of Guelph published the results of research showing that the Department of Indian Affairs (as it was then called) practiced medical experimentation against Aboriginal children in residential schools following World War Two. Some 1,500 children were deliberately starved in order to see what the medical effects would be.
Another key issue bearing down on the Canadian government is its failure to address the long-standing crisis of missing and murdered women, many of whom are Aboriginal and whose cases stretch back decades. The number is estimated at more than 600. The government is refusing demands for an inquiry, including by several United Nations agencies. Three recent articles about this are published in Rabble.ca, the Vancouver Observer and the Globe and Mail.
In 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) launched an unprecedented investigation of Canada, prompted by the failure to investigate missing and murdered Aboriginal women. See my report on that here.
The people seek reconciliation while governments pursue climate trashing
Coincidentally and ironically, the TRC’s weeklong hearings in Vancouver coincided with a lobbying and public relations campaign in British Columbia by ministers of the federal government on behalf of the Alberta tar sands industry. Ministers have flooded the province last week and this week in order to try and push back the broad opposition by British Columbia residents, including, most significantly, the province’s First Nations people, to fossil fuel projects.
British Columbia’s First Nations population numbers more than 200,000. About half of those live in the more than 100 First Nations communities in the province.
Two planned tar sands pipelines from Alberta to the BC coast face deep opposition in the province. Similar expansions of coal and fracked natural gas mining and export are underway, but opinion on these is more divided. For its part, the BC government is feigning opposition to one of the tar sands pipelines–Northern Gateway–but it shares the federal government enthusiasm on behalf of industry to dig up and burn every last drop of oil, gas and coal it can get its hands on.
In March of this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed lawyer John Eyford as a special lobbyist for tar sands and other fossil fuel projects, with a key task of “consultation” with First Nations. A more accurate description of his role is “information gathering”. He is to deliver a report to Harper in late November that will not be made public. The Tyee online publication covers this story well in a recent article, notwithstanding its incongruous recommendations for how to better sell pipeline projects to First Nations.
Following meetings with several government ministers, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has issued an urgent call for BC residents to ‘come into the street’ in protest if they wish to stop the tar sands pipelines from proceeding. Last October, 5,000 people rallied at the provincial legislature in Victoria to oppose the pipelines. Chief Phillip says that federal ministers should face similar actions whenever they’re in the province to lobby on behalf of the industry.
Other First Nations leaders are echoing Phillip’s assessment of the cabinet ministers’ salients. “They’ve been given instructions to get out here and improve relations and I’m sure they’re hopeful that they’ll be able to clear the path for Northern Gateway” Art Sterritt of Coastal First Nations told the Sept. 24 Vancouver Sun.
“We’re going into the room and saying Northern Gateway is dead.” First Nations will maintain a “wall of opposition” to Northern Gateway, he said.
Ed John of the First Nations Summit is also meeting with the cabinet ministers. He says that support for natural gas fracking, pipelines and coastal liquefaction plants in the north of the province is possible provided there are jobs and financial incentives offered to communities.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is scheduled to hold its seventh and final National Event in Edmonton next year, March 27-30. It is supposed to deliver its final report in 2014, but that may be delayed if it is unable to obtain the full record of documents from the federal government.
* Reflective of deepening class divergences and interests in Canada’s Aboriginal population is the fact that several major oil companies are sponsors of ‘Reconciliation Canada’. See a report on that here on Rabble.ca.