THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 37, Season 10
Sunday, June 6, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Heartbreak and horror.
Farah Nasser, Global News: “The remains of what’s believed to be 215 children were found in unmarked graves. Thousands of Indigenous children died of abuse and neglect, after being forced to attend residential schools across Canada.”
Gerald Etienne: “It’s a dark cloud over—over my life during that time.”
Evelyn Korkmaz: “All residential school survivors knew that there are more Indigenous innocent children buried on residential school grounds across Canada.”
Neetu Garcha, Global News: “As we report from the traditional and unceded lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, some here believe what was discovered in those grounds behind me, is leading to a national moment of reckoning.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Calls to action left unanswered.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations: “So we have a lot more work to do and we’re going to keep pressuring governments to implement the TRC calls to action, to implement the MMI, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, 230 plus calls to justice, and to keep investing to close the gap.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Six years in government, but have the Liberals fulfilled their promises? Independent MP and former Liberal Cabinet Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould joins me.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: “It is dangerously misleading for the government to suggest significant progress is being made on 80 per cent of the TRC calls to action. Endless meetings and process is no substitute for substance.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the government’s response. I’ll sit down with Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller.
It’s Sunday, June 6th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
The image many Canadians have of our country was deeply shaken over the past days with the traumatic discovery of an unmarked burial site of 215 children at the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia, children as young as 3-years-old.
The painful reality of residential schools and their legacy was thrown into broad daylight, a truth Indigenous Canadians have known and suffered through its tremendous trauma, a forced reckoning with our past in this country and the brutality and racism Indigenous children were subjected to. Is this the moment for change and action?
Joining me now is former attorney general and minister of justice for the Liberal government and now independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Thank you so much for joining us, Ms. Wilson-Raybould. What have the past 10 days been like for you and for your community? I know you were home and you “tweeted” a picture out of it and we’re showing that to our viewers right now. What has this been like for you?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well, thanks for showing the picture of my community and thanks for having me today. I mean, I have to say like I’m sure every Indigenous person and Canadians across the country, it’s been really tough the last week or so. I find myself, surprisingly, feeling incredibly angry, of course, sad with respect to the horrific revelations that came out of Kamloops, although they weren’t as surprised. I’m also frustrated, but it was good to back in my community and I recognize that there’s not a single Indigenous person that isn’t impacted by the legacy of residential schools and the institutions in this country and it’s an important conversation to have.
Mercedes Stephenson: I think that there’s a lot of concern that I’ve been hearing both from those who are focused on the policy file around Indigenous issues and Indigenous communities that this is just going to be the so-called spotlight. It hits right now and then next week everybody forgets and goes back to their lives. We’ve seen Idle No More, we saw the blockades in the Wet’suwet’en protests. Does this one feel different to you? Do you feel like there has been a reckoning or a realization in Canada about residential schools this week that will lead to change?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well, I hope so. I am a hopeful person. As you’ve said, there have been issues that have come up that have elevated Indigenous reconciliation; the horrific legacy of colonialism that still exists in this country today. You know it feels a bit different and I think the difference is that we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, we’ve had NMIWG’s important report and Canadians are becoming more aware. I know that Canadians are thirsty for more knowledge and with that, I hope comes a continued effort and pressing governments to actually turn the words into action. That’s what has caused me significant frustration and anger and I know the same is true for many Indigenous leaders across the country and Canadians. So I hope this is a time where we actually proceed and change words into actions.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the defences the government has used on lack of action on this file has been that they’re moving at the pace of communities, that they’re allowing this to be Indigenous lag. Do you disagree with that? Do you think that that’s a cop-out?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well I—I—of course, the work of reconciliation of rebuilding Indigenous nations within a stronger Canada is the important and necessary hard work that Indigenous nations need to do between and amongst themselves, but that’s not to say that it is appropriate in any way, shape or form to offload responsibility onto Indigenous peoples. The federal government has a role to play, a fundamental role to play, in creating the space for Indigenous nations to rebuild, correcting the historic wrongs that continue to exist and removing themselves out of the control of Indigenous peoples lives as exercised through the law that’s still on the book, The Indian Act. The prime minister must show leadership. He must direct his government to do what he promised to do, particularly what he promised to do on February the 14th in 2018. He hasn’t done that and we haven’t seen the necessary leadership for transformative change.
Mercedes Stephenson: And what exactly is that promise that he has not demonstrated? Where is the leadership lacking on this file, in your opinion?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well, I mean, I would encourage people to go back and read the prime minister’s words from February 14th. It’s about actually transforming the relationship between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples in this country. And we do that by way of not denying the rights of Indigenous peoples but actually recognizing those rights and ensuring that Indigenous peoples can be what it says in the United Nations Declaration, “self-determining” and that includes self-governing. The prime minister made a commitment to make that transformative change and that’s done through laws, changing laws, policies and the operational practices of government. He hasn’t done that.
Mercedes Stephenson: You said in an op-ed last week that you feel there is a lack of political leadership on this file and you’re outlining that again with the prime minister here today that he’s not fulfilled promises that he made. Why do you think that is? Why do you think the government isn’t acting?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well I—I mean—I will say, and I’m not one to just criticize for the sake of criticizing, there have been some measures that the government has taken, but on the transformative measures that were promised, so much was promised and so little was done. Why is that the case? Well because Indigenous peoples do not necessarily make up a significant portion of the population, we need to have the political will to tackle these issues even if they don’t necessarily translate into a significant number of votes for a party. And we’re in election season and I know that the political parties are looking for votes, but this is a human rights issue. This is a moral issue. This is the right thing to do to tackle the reality of Indigenous peoples in this country, do away with the racist and colonial laws and bring justice. The leader that does that, the prime minister that does that, will transform this country and address an issue that has been outstanding since Confederation.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll ask Jody Wilson-Raybould about the fact that over half of the children in foster care in this country are Indigenous.
And later, 94 calls to action. But how many has the government actually acted on? I’ll ask Indigenous Services Minster Marc Miller.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to The West Block, as we continue our conversation with Canada’s first Indigenous Justice Minister and now independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould.
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It sounds like you’re saying you think that this is connected to votes. It’s connected to whether or not this becomes a voter issue and whether or not these are votes that the government is trying to court. But I want to ask you very specifically about some of the policies that are still affecting Indigenous children and Indigenous people in this country, in particular, the policy of putting Indigenous children into foster care. There are more Indigenous kids in foster care now and in state care than there was during residential schools. Many Indigenous children still have to leave their homes if they want to go to high school and go to a big city like Thunder Bay. There have been deaths at some of these schools with young teenagers. How do you reform that? And how do you educate Canadians about what’s actually happening still to this day, that this is not just a historic issue?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Yeah, and I think it’s not just a historic issue. It is the reality of the ongoing colonial legacy, the intractable legacy of residential schools in this country as the TRC has stated, continue to exist and have been reinvented so to speak in children in care, in custody. As you mentioned statistics, over half of the children in care are Indigenous and Indigenous kids represent a very low pop—measure of the population generally. This is a symptom of the colonial legacy. This is a result of poverty, of marginalization, of discrimination, of thinking that we know what’s best for Indigenous people. It’s paternalism, taking children away their home communities and their families because they need to be educated in some way beyond that community. This is the challenge. We need to ensure that we create the space for children to be able to remain in their homes, if appropriate certainly and have Indigenous communities and Indigenous nations be able to take over the so-called child welfare system so children aren’t removed from their homes where they face further abuses. And it’s been said that the child welfare system and putting children into foster care only leads or fast forwards the reality of the Indigenous people becoming a part of the criminal justice system and that’s not the way we want to go. We need to focus on self-determination, self-government, having Indigenous peoples have control over their children.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that the government has lost the moral authority to investigate this because there are calls for the international criminal court to actually come in and take a look at whether they’ve been crimes against humanity in the way that Canada has treated its Indigenous people. What are your thoughts on that?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well I think that the international community, we’ve been—we see this is in the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples certainly has a role to play in calling out the human rights abuses in this country. You know with respect to this government and this prime minister, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to do the right thing, to put into action the words that you spoke, Mr. Prime Minister, on February 14th. Make the transformative change. Change the policies that are on the books that deny the rights of Indigenous peoples and create the space for them to rebuild and this is what we need to do. Stop denying rights of Indigenous peoples and enable them to rebuild their institutions of government.
Mercedes Stephenson: Does that mean getting rid of the Indian Act?
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Well we need to ultimately do away with the Indian Act, of course, this is a racist, colonial piece of legislation that created the residential schools that still exist on the book. But we need to understand and know what is going to replace the Indian Act and we need to create the space for that replacement, which is to provide Indigenous peoples with the ability, when they’re ready, willing and able, when they have rebuilt their institutions of government, developed their constitution, determined who their citizens are, how they’re going to govern themselves to be able to remove themselves without the federal government playing gatekeeper to their liberation. Yes, we need to get rid of the Indian Act and the way that we’ll do that is by enabling empowered Indigenous nations to say when it’s time for them to remove themselves. We don’t have that mechanism in this country and we need to put it in place, in law.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jody Wilson-Raybould, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today and to share your thoughts.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Independent—Vancouver Granville: Thank you so much for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, will the government commit to abolishing the Indian Act? I’ll ask Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Imagine what that must have felt like, Mr. Speaker, to have fought so long, so hard against colonialism. Now, imagine the mounting disappointment, the all too unsurprising and familiar heartache, and the rising tide of anger when governments that had promised so much, yet so little to keep their word.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons in 2018. Now, his government faces the same questions on allegations of their own inaction for promises made to Indigenous communities.
I spoke with the prime minister in December of 2020. Here’s what he told me when I asked about the government’s lack of progress on some of those key promises.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report came out and we have reached 80 per cent of the federal calls to action are either completed or well underway. That is significant progress. There’s a lot more to do and we’re continuing to accelerate that work.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. Thank you so much for making time for us, minister. How are you?
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister: I’m good, Mercedes. How are you?
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m well, thanks. We appreciate you making time. We know that you’re very busy. But this is a really, really important topic and it’s one that your government has made a lot of promises on and I get the sense that you feel very strongly about this personally and it’s something I’ve heard as well from Indigenous communities, that they feel you’re coming to the table in good faith, but I’m wondering how you feel about whether you’ve lived up to, and your government has lived up to, the promises you’ve made to the Indigenous community to have transformational change in this country.
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister: Yeah, and then certainly during a week like this, there is some time to think about the speed of reconciliation. It’s a stark reminder that reconciliation is neither linear or easy. It’s certainly been a reminder throughout our government. We’ve been a government that’s made historic investments financially in that transformative change, closing socio-economic gaps, there’s no one that’s going to deny it. But you know today is—and this week, has been a reminder, a far too painful one that the truth comes before reconciliation and right now, all eyes are on a residential school where atrocities were committed and accompanying those nations in their grieving, frankly, and in the work they need to do to continue healing. So that’s where my mind is presently, knowing that for that to happen over the long-term, we have to continue relentlessly with investments in education, housing, closing all those socio-economic gaps that Indigenous leaders speak so eloquently about in a—in a context where there’s very little trust towards the federal government that has been bred over decades and centuries and that is an impediment to progress. But I do see hope, I wouldn’t be in this position if I wasn’t hopeful.
I’ve seen vaccination campaigns that are better than in non-Indigenous communities because we prioritized them. Many Indigenous people were vaccinated before me or the prime minister and that speaks well to where we are as a country, but you know those lessons can be forgotten very easily and again, this week is another stark reminder that there’s a lot more truth to be uncovered.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Miller, one of the things that we’ve heard from Indigenous leaders is that they want to get rid of the Indian Act and we were just speaking to Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former colleague of yours. She called the Indian Act a racist, colonialist piece of legislation. She believes it has to be eliminated. Do you agree with that?
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister: Absolutely, it is. It is a legacy of a colonial government approach to Indigenous relations. It’s the present reality of many communities. But I think it’s important to remind viewers that attempts to eliminate it have been called termination when it’s only Ottawa knows best and Ottawa dictates it from on high. Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was instrumental in putting together a rights framework, did great work with us and moved the ball forward significantly, but we can’t just show up in treaty areas and say, “Here, here’s our framework, sign onto it.” It comes with deep engagement with, for example, treaty areas that have not been respected in terms of treaty rights that are considered scared in many circumstances. Longstanding claims that communities are saying to us, “Well let’s solve this first before you come into our communities with this piece of paper, trying to figure things out because we think you’ll break it.” So that trust element is sometimes missing. We have to be relentless in building it and we have to prove it. Promises aren’t enough. We have to keep proving it. So again, there’s perhaps time to reflect on the pace of reconciliation, but no one should doubt the commitment of this government that has been backed with the greatest financial commitments of any government in our history.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to talk to you about Indigenous children in the care of the state and education because there’s actually more Indigenous children in state care now than there was during residential schools and I think a lot of Canadians don’t realize that. It’s something I didn’t realize until I read Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, was the number of Indigenous children who actually have to leave their homes and go to cities or towns nearby if they want to complete high school. They’re unable to do this if they stay with their families. That doesn’t happen to white children the same way and advocates say this is an example of how the colonial system is still marginalizing and oppressing Indigenous children. What is your government doing to reduce the number of children in state care and the number of children who are forced to leave their families if they choose to get a high school education?
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister: Yeah, and I think just to—as a slight tangent—people should read Ms. Talaga’s book, it is so poignant and so well-written. It should be required reading for all Canadians.
You hit on a—you hit the nail on the head. We know that no court case can achieve that transformative change. We need to move forward with nations on reform of education. Reform of education according to the nations understanding of their own education system is not only something that’s aspirational. It is proven to yield better graduation rates in Indigenous communities.
Minister Bennett and I just signed an agreement with the Anishinabek Nation over child and family services and they had previously signed a transformative document in around carriage of their own educational system, this is the only way out of it. It’s going to require billions of dollars of investments. Whether that’s new schools and we’ve certainly done that over the course of our mandate and we will continue to do so. But it goes across the board and it isn’t—you know court cases are so back-ended. We don’t want to end there. We want to—there’s a cost to inaction and the action that this government has put forward will carry benefits that will be seen way past sort of the political cycles that we think about but will be so transformative for the children growing up in their children, which is something that has never been afforded to them and something someone like—people like you and I take for granted.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Miller, certainly still a lot of work to be done on this file. We look forward to speaking to you again about it in the future. Thank you.
Marc Miller, Indigenous Services Minister: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you for tuning in to The West Block. For this week, I’m Mercedes Stephenson and I’ll see you right back here, next Sunday.
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