Justice for Indigenous peoples is essential to the future well-being of Canada. If I have the privilege of being re-elected as Member of Parliament for Markham-Stouffville, one of my priorities will be the ongoing work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Less than one percent of the population of this riding is Indigenous. Nonetheless, truth and reconciliation matter to the people of our community.
Of all the things I learned in four years as a Member of Parliament, some of the most important lessons were about our history as a nation as it relates to our relationship with the first peoples of this land.
I was given a perspective that is afforded to few Canadians. As a cabinet minister, I visited the territory of many First Nations, Inuit and Métis. I sat in circles with elders, grandmothers, Chiefs and councils, youth, and other groups. I listened to their stories to learn about their history, their traditions, their joys and their pain. I observed the remarkable resilience of Indigenous peoples and how unique cultures have been sustained despite Canada’s historic policies of domination and assimilation.
I visited Tahltan First Nation in northern British Columbia to observe the staggering devastation of the 2018 wildfires. Behind the tragic loss of hectares of forest, I could see the magnificent beauty of the traditional territory. Even more impressive was the grace and strength of the Chief and his people as they dedicated themselves with whole-hearted determination to rebuild their homes and their community.
On the opposite coast, I recall a community with equally vivid natural beauty on the coast of Labrador. I visited Nain in 2017 for the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee meetings. It was a great opportunity to see this community and strengthen my relationship with the President of the Nunatsiavut government. This would become important, less than a year later, when there was a tuberculosis outbreak in Nain, and I was able to respond quickly to the President’s requests for more nursing support and X-ray equipment.
There were numerous memorable visits with Métis communities. One was the gathering of Métis youth in Winnipeg to advise the government regarding co-developed legislation on Indigenous child welfare. I listened to thoughtful, articulate Métis youth who had grown up in the child welfare system. Their stories were heartbreaking. Their advice and recommendations were pragmatic and wise.
I had many visits to northern Ontario, including one to Pikangikum with the Prime Minister. While meeting with community leaders, the Chief introduced a councillor and described that she lives in a two-bedroom house with more than 20 other family members. He explained how she and her family must sleep in shifts so everyone will get time in a bed. One young person had to drop out of high school because he was exhausted. The boy couldn’t study because he couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep. The critical infrastructure needs are more alarming when you learn that more than half of the homes in Pikangikum do not have running water or functional plumbing. This is happening in Canada – in an affluent province in this affluent country -- today.
The injustices and inequities are shocking, and they should be more broadly understood and urgently addressed. The most important thing I learned is how the social inequities are rooted in the denial of rights. For generations, in this country, we have had laws, policies and practices that discriminate against Indigenous peoples.
At the same time, there is a path to reconciliation. It starts with the truth. If we were not taught the truth in school, it is not too late to learn. We will not achieve reconciliation without confronting the truths of our collective past. The future is the opportunity to set things right. We can move forward as a country to right the wrongs of our shared past and follow the path forward together. That path must include the recognition and affirmation of the inherent and Treaty rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right to self-determination.
In 1996, Canada received the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It included the following assertion: “What Aboriginal people need is straightforward, if not simple: Control over their lives in place of the well-meaning but ruinous paternalism of past Canadian governments; lands, resources and self-chosen governments with which to reconstruct social, economic and political order; time, space and respect from Canada to heal their spirits and revitalize their cultures.”
There are great examples of what happens when the right to self-determination is respected. One of the most beautiful ceremonies I attended as Minister of Indigenous Services, was a 2018 celebration in Alberta to witness the transfer of authority to the Maskwacis Education Schools Commission to run 11 schools. There is abundant evidence that education authorities or health authorities run by First Nations for First Nations achieve far better outcomes, while implementing the right to self-determination.
I will continue learning about the history and present-day realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. People in Markham-Stouffville share this commitment to better understand the truth and to advocate for Indigenous rights and justice. The City of Markham has established an agreement of cultural collaboration with Eabametoong First Nation to promote harmony and goodwill between the two communities and cultures. The Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville has helped residents learn more about the large 16th century Huron-Wendat settlement that once stood on the land where houses have been built. These are just two examples of how the people and municipalities of Markham and Stouffville are developing positive, mutually respectful relationships with First Nations to advance the work of reconciliation. It has been a great honour, as MP, to support such important work. There is much more to do.
What are your ideas about advancing reconciliation?