Work in Progress

From Truth to Reconciliation and Response, Responsibility, and Renewal present compelling arguments that the landscape of Canada has changed. The questions are how and to what extent.

Some may argue that Canada—the way we experience it, the way we perceive it—has changed for the better. Some may highlight recent words and actions and the impacts—positive or negative—on their lives. Others may argue that there have been changes for Aboriginal people—to whatever degree—but new words and actions have not rectified fundamental problems, and the sentiments and deeds are of little or no significance to non-Aboriginal Canadians. Others will and have argued that what we have seen is more of the same and, thus, not new and not change at all.

This last argument is a difficult one, both to make and, for some, to swallow. But, as some of the authors in the preceding pages have argued, issues like residential schools, child welfare, and various legislative, policy, and programmatic developments must be placed within a larger colonial context, and that context is in both history and present-day reality, with alarming possibilities for our future. Then, there is the fact that some people may have no idea what change we are talking about. However, we may be able to agree that there have, at the very least, been developments with regard to the relationship between Aboriginal people and Canada.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a court-ordered settlement endorsed by Survivors’ legal representatives, churches, and the federal government in 2006 and implemented as of September 2007, is an historic first. That is change. Within this larger historic first are other smaller changes: advance cash payments of $8,000 to all eligible former students who were 65 years of age or older on 30 May 2005; a common experience payment (CEP) of $10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each subsequent year to Survivors living in 2005 or their estates if deceased; and an individual assessment process (IAP) for adjudication of cases of more serious abuse. These developments are change, most notably in the sense that CEP and IAP are responses to overwhelming criticism of the previous alternative dispute resolution process. Nonetheless, the compensation experience and, of course, the influx of tens of thousands of dollars into individual households and communities has meant impacts on individuals and communities—some positive, some neutral, and some negative.

The other components of the Agreement also signal change. The creation of a $20 million fund for commemoration of the legacy of residential schools, at both the national and with community-based events, and for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a five-year mandate consistent with many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) is a response to Survivors’ and communities’ expressed desires to see the experiences of Survivors documented and shared and the effects nationally and internationally acknowledged. In commemoration, too, there is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate individual and collective Survivor and community resilience. The TRC has the potential, for some, to address many of the RCAP recommendations.

To what end?

This seems to be a question that remains afloat, without a definitive answer, beyond reconciliation. There are countless examples of individuals and organizations attempting to define what reconciliation is and what it means in context, philosophically and practically. This volume and its predecessor contain such examples. The five-year extension of funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) to support community-based healing initiatives, the final component of the Agreement, has allowed the Foundation to engage in the reconciliation dialogue with others, and AHF has been privileged to work with many other parties in healing initiatives.

But to what end? So that “those affected by the legacy of Physical Abuse and Sexual Abuse experienced in Residential School … [may address] the effects of unresolved trauma in meaningful terms, [break] … the cycle of abuse, and … [enhance] their capacity as individuals, families, communities and nations to sustain their well being and that of future generations.”1 Promoting reconciliation—whatever it means in the end—is part of that commitment. So, too, is gauging the impacts on the healing journeys of individuals and communities for the purpose of better serving the needs of Survivors and of those affected intergenerationally. We see Aboriginal communities transformed, with healthier communities and individuals across and within Canada contributing to a transformed Canada, a healthier Canada.

Transformation is possible, as John Borrows, the renowned Indigenous lawyer and professor, writes:

Canada is a work in progress. An unfinished national project that inspires hope, and an advanced federal state that bleeds along provincial seams. People in many countries would consider themselves fortunate to live in a country such as Canada. Others feel grateful to live in places that have a deeper sense of national purpose, historic legacy, and political cohesion … Nevertheless, Canada is a great place to live, for most. When you look at the alternatives, things could be much worse.2

For this transformation to succeed, all Canadians must become engaged in the effort. Reconciliation is not about residential schools alone; this long history did not exist in a vacuum and cannot be addressed as if it did.

To Indigenous nations with thousands of years of history and inherent rights in connection to this land, the new nation of Canada is a relatively recent development. When it became a British colony in 1867 through the British North America Act and then an independent nation in 1982 through the Canada Act, Canada took on the obligations to continue to uphold the honour of the British Crown where, Section 35 states, “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”3

In the period of early contact between displaced Europeans and Indigenous nations, there was often a mutual respect and a harmonious sense of working together on many levels. How else would the fur trade and some treaties have been possible? Since that time, however, Canada has not done a very good job of upholding the honour of the Crown. Canada has often moved in an aggressive and intrusive manner, and this has created many problems on both sides. And Canada has a history of misinterpreting and misrepresenting what these problems are. It is not “the Indian problem” that some people are Indigenous. It is “the Canada problem,” because Canada has failed to understand that Indigenous peoples are nations that developed on, and are linked to, their territories and, thus, possess distinct identities and rights that will never be legislated or schooled away.

Colonialism and assimilation clearly did not work and will not work. Indigenous peoples are still here asserting their identities and demanding rights. So what is the new course of action to accommodate this? As many authors have noted, Section 35 in 1982 and RCAP in 1994 articulated the new relationship that is needed, but words on paper are not enough. We are now 27 years into Section 35 and 15 years into RCAP’s 20-year implementation plan.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is not the only landscape-changing development either. Since the failure of the conferences of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters mandated by Section 35, there have been a series of court cases further articulating Aboriginal rights in law; including, Sparrow, Van der Peet, Delgamuukw, Gladstone, and Haida Taku, but these judgments have thus far not been adequately reflected in policy and legislation at the grassroots level. So the question of change, posed above, can also be rephrased to reflect this movement: “When will there be significant change?” This question, too, can be hopeful and about all Canadians.

In 2007, the British Columbia Supreme Court released its decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia. This decision is the most significant trial judgment on Aboriginal title and rights since the Supreme Court of Canada decided the Delgamuukw case in 1997.4 In his 485-page judgment, the Honourable Mr. Justice Vickers spent the closing 18 pages on the issue of reconciliation. Justice Vickers states: “Throughout the course of the trial and over the long months of preparing this judgment, my consistent hope has been that, whatever the outcome, it would ultimately lead to an early and honourable reconciliation … The time to reach an honourable resolution and reconciliation is with us today.”5 He refers to Black’s Law Dictionary, eighth edition, defining reconciliation as: “Restoration of harmony between persons or things that had been in conflict.”6 Justice Vickers goes on to state:

The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians has a troubled history. Thus, there is a kindling of hope and expectation that a just and honourable reconciliation with First Nations people will be achieved by this generation of Canadians… Unfortunately, the initial reluctance of governments to acknowledge the full impact of s. 35(1) has placed the question of reconciliation in the courtroom – one of our most adversarial settings.7

The judge expressed the hope that his decision will assist the parties in finding a contemporary solution that balances Tsilhqot’in interests and needs with the interests and needs of the broader society. The Court’s decision, he indicated, constituted one step in the process of reconciliation.8 “Reconciliation,” Justice Vickers says, “is a process. It is in the interests of all Canadians that we begin to engage in this process at the earliest possible date.”9 Justice Vickers’ strong tone is speaking out beyond the judiciary to all of Canada, and hopefully Canadians can hear the message.

Like a growing child, a new nation makes mistakes and lessons are learned. Mistakes are to be corrected where possible and lessons, even hard lessons, are invaluable. Justice Vickers’ statements, the Apology, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide an encouragement for Indigenous peoples and Canada to correct the mistakes of the past and forge a new reality. The roadmap that RCAP laid out is available, and a legacy of inquiries, consultations, and legal judgments are also available to guide the way. There are also volumes of reports, books, essays, and other writings to draw upon, and the AHF hopes that this volume makes a valuable contribution to this research and discourse, leading us down the path to reconciliation.

As Borrows says,

Canada is a work in progress and there is hope. Living here one gets the distinct sense that we are not yet finished forming our political, legal and social culture; the meaning of Canadian citizenship is in a state of flux. Tomorrow might be different, even better than today. Despite much whining and complaining, there is a well-spring of public will to debate and reform our institutions and include an ever increasing circle of people within our nation.10


Within the Canadian context(s) discussed above, a new element has emerged as this volume goes to print. On 29 April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation led by Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the Most Reverend James Weisgerber, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, who delivered a statement to the Pope about the residential schools.

Due to the timing of this development, neither the contributors to this volume nor the editorial committee were able to discuss this historic occasion. We have, however, included the formal Communiqué of the Holy See Press Office released that day as Appendix 4.

  1. Aboriginal Healing Foundation (2001:9). Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Handbook, Third Edition. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The vision, mission, and values can also be found on the AHF website at:
  2. Borrows, John (2003:223). Measuring a Work in Progress: Canada, Constitutionalism, Citizenship and Aboriginal Peoples. In Ardith Walkem and Halie Bruce (eds.), Box of Treasures or Empty Box? Twenty Years of Section 35. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books Ltd: 223–262.
  3. Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, Section 35.
  4. Blakes Bulletin on Aboriginal Issues, The Tsilhqot’in Nation Decision on Aboriginal Title and Rights, November 2007.
  5. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2007:441), BCSC 1700.
  6. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia.
  7. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia.
  8. Blakes Bulletin on Aboriginal Law, The Tsilhqot’in Nation Decision on Aboriginal Title and Rights, November 2007.
  9. Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2007:458).
  10. Borrows (2003:224).