We are all paying a high price for our mistreatment of First Nations peoples and these costs will only continue to soar and weaken us as a nation.
Mercifully, the residential schools are long gone but their legacy remains in the poverty, high rates of crime, suicide and addiction, substandard housing, healthcare and education, and lack of opportunities for Indigenous people.
The residential schools undoubtedly provided an education and opportunities for some but they also left a generation of vulnerable young people damaged and broken in spirit.
There are encouraging examples today of prosperous Indigenous communities and successful Indigenous individuals in this country but, unfortunately, these are all too rare.
This represents human tragedy as well as a huge drag on our economy now and in the years ahead.
We’ve just come through our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. We’ve wept with residential school survivors and the families whose kids didn’t survive. We’ve listened to the speeches from politicians on all sides and their demands and promises. And we’ve watched the rich pageantry of a culture that is woven deep into the sinew of Canada but so alien to most Canadians both native-born and imported.
But now what? Where are the leaders—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—who can work together and coalesce the patience and wisdom needed of their people to move forward?
It has been widely stated that there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness. But personal ambition, political advantage, and long-seeded prejudice and disinterest in forgiveness are no stranger to some involved in the process.
There are so many immoveable objects at play here:
- A large and complex network of First Nations and their people who don’t speak with one voice and among themselves don’t share the same goals, philosophy, priorities, and sense of urgency.
- A history of bad laws, mistrust and misunderstanding on all sides.
- Government bureaucracy that is hidebound in tradition and cynicism born out of countless failures and disappointments and broken promises.
- Politicians who would rather kick the can down the road than find compromise and make the tough decisions that are required.
Marc Miller, the current federal minister in charge of aboriginal issues, appears the epitome of patience, wisdom, and empathy. RoseAnne Archibald, the incoming national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, gives cause for hope in her commitment and experience.
Both face the huge challenge of getting their own people on side and fostering understanding and restoring trust.
There are hot heads and cold hearts in both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and there’s no shortage of extremists who will continue to fight compromise and progress.
Residential schools were out of sight and out of mind for generations of Canadians.
Perhaps they saw the warning signs of abuse and misery but didn’t see it as their problem.
It took the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of several former school sites this past summer to make headlines around the world and hammer home the reality of abuse and harm suffered by Indigenous kids, their families, and whole communities.
Today, there are countless markers that we conveniently choose not to recognize for the injustice and inequality they represent, and their impact on public policy and finances and where our country is headed.
There is certainly no shortage of warning signs.
- The 2016 census showed that the number of Canadians who identify as Indigenous was 4.9 per cent for a total of 1.6 million.
- In the 10 years leading up to 2016 our Indigenous population grew by 42.5 per cent—more than four times faster than the rest of the population.
- During the same period the percentage of Indigenous youth 18 to 24 with high school diplomas increased from 53 per cent to 68 per cent off-reserve and on-reserve from 32 per cent to 41 per cent. This compared to an increase from 82 per cent to 88 per cent for non-Indigenous youth.
- The census indicated Indigenous housing conditions showed little improvement. In 2016, 45 per cent of reserve residents lived in substandard housing, which is seven times higher than the non-Indigenous population.
- It’s estimated that 38 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty.
- There are some 15,000 kids in Canada in foster care and 52.2 per cent of them are from indigenous families—sad reminders of their grandparents removed from their families and put in residential schools.
Statistics related to incarceration are especially devastating, with blame placed on poverty, lack of jobs and social programs, and legal systemic inequities.
- Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned. In 2018/19 Indigenous people accounted for 31 per cent of admissions to provincial and territorial institutions and 29 per cent to federal custody.
- The numbers are especially noteworthy in western Canada where Indigenous adults account for 75 per cent of admissions to custody in Manitoba and Saskatchewan while accounting for only about 15 per cent of the provincial population.
- Female Indigenous prisoners represent 42 per cent of the inmates in Canadian prisons.
These statistics paint a costly picture in human suffering and lost potential and a financial burden for taxpayers and our country.
More than $5 billion was spent in Canada in 2018/19 for correctional services with costs per inmate running at $116,000 a year in federal institutions and $94,000 at the provincial level.
It’s impossible to directly relate all these conditions and behaviour to the residential school system, as some would do.
There is no doubt, however, that the schools represent a black chapter in our country’s history with damage transferred from generation to generation.
The time for more studies and commissions and reports is long past. Find us the leaders—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—and give them the direction and public support to get on with the job that is so long overdue.
I think Canadians know it’s the right thing to do.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.
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