TRC@1: Ontario takes good first step toward better treaty relationships, but more required

Indigenous Advocacy | Truth and Reconciliation Commission | UNDRIP

On May 30, 2016, Ontario released The Journey Together which sets out Ontario’s “Commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.” It largely details new and existing funding commitments for programs targeted towards Indigenous peoples. There is a lot of good news in this report for Indigenous people. Ontario has committed over $250M in new money over the next three years to spend on “programs and actions focused on reconciliation.” This is a good first step and Ontario should be congratulated on releasing this report before the 1st Anniversary of the TRC’s Call to Action.

Some of the highlights in The Journey Together:

  • There is $20M over 3 years to address the legacy of residential schools. Ontario will establish a commemorative monument in Toronto and give money towards the restoration and development of the Mohawk Institute Residential School Interpretation Centre. These are excellent steps towards acknowledging and educating all Ontarians about residential schools.
  • The biggest chunk of new money is going towards health programs ($150M). There will be more money for crisis support, mental health programs, and increased child-care spots in urban centres.
  • Up to $45M over 3 years will go to expanding justice programs, including increasing the number of Gladue report writers and aftercare workers.
  • There is $30M to support Indigenous cultural revitalization, which will go to the Indigenous Cultural Revitalization Fund to support cultural activities, an Indigenous languages symposium, youth culture camps and a ceremonial garden in Toronto.
  • There are non-financial commitments too. Buried in the document is a commitment to improve the way resource benefits are shared with Indigenous communities. Ontario will consider “how to advance resource benefit-sharing opportunities, including resource revenue sharing in the forestry and mining sectors.” It is hard to tell if this signals a commitment to make fundamental changes in policy about resource benefit sharing, but if so, it will be a good opportunity for Ontario to more seriously engage with the promise to share the land that comes out of the Treaty relationship. Indigenous peoples will need to keep pressure on Ontario to follow through on this commitment.
  • Ontario also says it will discourage the use of names that are considered offensive to Indigenous peoples in organizations funded by the government. Names are just one element. The use of offensive imagery must also be actively discouraged.
  • The Ontario government has also taken some symbolic steps:
    • Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs is now the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. It is a symbolic gesture, but an expensive one. Publications and websites have to be changed, business cards re-printed and a new acronym learned.
    • Ontario will start using the term “Indigenous” in its ministries; and
    • Ontario will look at how advice of youth and Elders could be incorporated into government decision making

So what is missing?

Ontario missed an opportunity to commit to implement UNDRIP. Instead, Ontario says it will only “take a strong, supportive and active role in considering policy options to address UNDRIP.” That is not the same as implementing UNDRIP in its full form. I question how we can achieve reconciliation when the level of government given jurisdiction over lands and resources in the Canadian constitution refuses to accept international norms on Indigenous rights.

Which leads me to the other big omission in this report – honouring the treaties in a real way. Ontario is proposing initiatives to increase awareness in Ontario about the existence of the treaties and our rights as treaty peoples, for example:

  • Acknowledging treaties within ministers’ statements, the Public Service Oath of Office and government-issued documents;
  • Continuing mandatory cultural competency training for the public service on issues including treaties;
  • Continuing to work on enhancing the curriculum in K-12 to include learning about the rights and responsibilities we have to each other as treaty people;  and
  • Naming the first week of November treaty awareness week.

Increasing awareness of the treaties is important. All Ontarians have a role to play in respecting and honouring the treaties as we are all treaty partners. But it is not enough. There is a commitment to continue working with Chiefs of Ontario on Ontario’s Treaty Strategy. But we need a courageous commitment from the federal and provincial governments to renew the historic treaties and to open up genuine negotiations between the treaty partners to renew our mutual commitments and achieve true reconciliation. My colleagues Nancy Kleer and Gillian Paul recently prepared an excellent paper on what it means to honour the treaties.

I also question who is teaching the awareness about the treaties. Indigenous peoples have fundamentally different understandings about the meanings of the treaties than the understandings expressed by the Crowns to date. Increasing awareness of only one perspective on what the treaties mean will not achieve reconciliation.

Overall Ontario has made some good commitments and by issuing this report signalled a commitment to take action to achieve reconciliation. But will funding programs and increasing awareness be enough? What happens if Premier Wynne does not win the next provincial election? Reconciliation cannot just depend on the whims of government. Fundamental changes are required.

By Stephanie Kearns