Fifteenth Report of Indigenous Peoples Committee

By: The Hon. Brian Francis

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Hon. Brian Francis: Honourable senators, before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that I am speaking from the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

Today, in my capacity as the Chair of the Committee on Indigenous Peoples, I am humbled to speak about Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation.

In short, the bill responds to Call to Action 53 of The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which calls upon the Parliament of Canada to, in consultation and collaboration with Indigenous Peoples, enact legislation to establish a national council for reconciliation. Specifically, the bill proposes a permanent, independent national oversight body, which would be incorporated as a not-for-profit organization and mandated, among other responsibilities, to monitor, evaluate and report on the progress towards reconciliation.

The bill would also lay the foundation for Calls to Action 55 and 56, which outline the funds that should be allocated to the council and the data and information it requires from various levels of government. The Prime Minister of Canada is also required to formally respond to the annual report developed by the council — which would highlight progress being made in all governments and sectors of the country and make recommendations — by issuing an annual report on the state of Indigenous peoples that outlines the Government of Canada’s plans for advancing reconciliation.

I want to now shed light on the examination and consideration of Bill C-29 at the Committee on Indigenous Peoples. In total, we held 12 meetings amounting to over 20 hours. During this time, we heard from over 50 witnesses and received 23 written briefs, including 7 responses from witnesses to outstanding questions.

I am grateful to the members of the committee for approaching this work respectfully and productively. For example, to develop and finalize a strong work plan, we asked members and non-members to suggest witnesses and tried to allocate spots fairly and equitably.

To hear from as many individuals and groups as possible, we also issued an open call for written briefs and encouraged colleagues to share the invitation within their networks.

While far from comprehensive, I do believe that the evidence heard by the committee is representative of the diverse perspectives that Indigenous peoples, and others, hold about the national council for reconciliation.

Last Thursday, on October 26, the Committee on Indigenous Peoples presented its fifteenth report on Bill C-29 with amendments and observations, which I intend to summarize next.

With regard to amendments, the committee modified clause 2, which defines terms used in the bill. We amended the term “governments” and added the term “Indigenous governing body” which encompasses the leadership and organizational structure chosen by First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups.

The committee also modified clause 6 to clarify that the purpose of the council is to advance reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples rather than simply with Indigenous peoples. This amendment emphasizes that reconciliation extends to all levels of government and society. It is, furthermore, the shared responsibility of the diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations that make up Canada.

Clause 7, which sets out the functions of the council, was also amended.

In line with the language of Call to Action 53, the emphasis is placed on monitoring, evaluating and reporting. We also added the components of policy development and public education programs to the multi-year national action plan. Lastly, we specified that the council must stimulate and promote innovative dialogue, as well as initiatives and public-private partnerships, to advance reconciliation.

The committee added new clauses 7.1 and 7.2, which address several concerns raised by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and other witnesses. Further to the amendment in clause 2, it is made explicitly clear that the council will not act on behalf of, or represent the interests of, an Indigenous governing body. The act of consulting or engaging with the council would not discharge the duty to consult of governments or others.

In addition, it is noted that the council will not interfere with the work happening through current or future bilateral mechanisms established between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, such as the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee.

There is also an amendment to clause 16 dealing with the disclosure of information. In the bill, clauses 16(1) and (2) require the minister to develop, in collaboration with the council, an information-sharing protocol to ensure that the council can carry out its functions. If relevant information is not released, clause 16(3) adds that the council may apply to the federal court for remedies. I highlight here that the word used is “may,” and not “shall.” In other words, it is only one of a range of options that the council may pursue.

Clause 16.1, which deals with the annual report from the Prime Minister, is amended to specify that the end of the financial year is March 31.

Lastly, a new clause 17.1 is added. This is a consequential amendment that creates alignment with the new reporting requirements set out in clause 7.

The committee also made six observations regarding Bill C-29.

First, we observed that the context behind the establishment of the council is the devastating intergenerational effects of assimilationist policies promoted by the federal government, including Indian residential schools, which have had significant negative impacts on Indigenous peoples’ well-being and highlight the need for an independent, Indigenous-operated body that can measure progress on eliminating disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Elders, survivors and their descendants must inform and guide this work.

Second, to fulfill its broad mandate, we further noted that the council must have timely and unencumbered access to information from all levels of government.

Third, given the ongoing difficulties faced by other bodies, such as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the committee further observed that a complaint resolution mechanism should be established at the same time as the information sharing and disclosure protocol described in section 16(1) of Bill C-29.

Fourth, the committee also recommended that the board of directors should strive to include a broader representation of Indigenous peoples than those currently identified in the act.

In specific, it must reflect the diversity, backgrounds and experiences of Indigenous peoples, regardless of where they live. While avoiding being too prescriptive, this observation highlights the need for inclusive representation and engagement.

Fifth, to reflect the paramount importance of bilateral mechanisms established between the Government of Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, the committee amended the bill and made explicitly clear that the council should not interfere with these mechanisms.

Sixth, while pleased that the Government of Canada has allocated an endowment of $126.5 million, the committee agreed with witnesses that this amount is insufficient.

To fulfill its widespread mandate, the council must be supported by long-term, multi-year funding to ensure that it has the financial, human and technical resources required to conduct its work. As a result, we strongly recommended that the government increase the endowment to a more appropriate level, at least proportionate with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which, as we heard from Professor David MacDonald, became a self-sustaining body from a total investment of $515 million. This observation underscores a concern that, due to insufficient funds, the council may lack the financial, human and technical resources required.

This point was emphasized by Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, who stated:

. . . without the money and the means, everything can become politicized and fragile when we need this to be permanent and stable.

This cannot be another perceived destitute organization trying to work miracles on a shoestring.

Colleagues, before I conclude, I would like to make some brief comments.

In the context of examining Bill C-29, some have expressed concerns about the lack of consultation. I respect these arguments and I understand where they come from.

However, it is important to remember the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was based on research, records and testimonies gathered between 2008 and 2015, and recommended the establishment of the national council for reconciliation.

This position was shared by Dr. Marie Wilson. She said:

I know this statement will be controversial, but I feel that the TRC itself was a huge consultation. It was an unprecedented canvas of Indigenous peoples consulting on residential schools, narrowly, but in fact, people spoke to us very widely about multiple sectors of their lives, which is why the Calls to Action are much wider than just setting out what happened in the schools and saying, “Let’s fix the schools.” It goes far beyond that because the impacts go far beyond that.

So that was a huge consultation. . . . I think if we go back and say, “Well, nobody was consulted,” I think that is, frankly, an unfair representation, because it didn’t start from nowhere. . . .

A lot of attention was also given to the composition of the board of directors. Some witnesses disagreed with the inclusion of non-Indigenous people. Others agreed but wanted a smaller number. There were also debates about which Indigenous governments or organizations should have the opportunity to nominate a board member. The reality, however, is that with 9 to 13 members, all Indigenous peoples can’t be represented.

Michael DeGagné, one of the members of the Transitional Committee for the National Council for Reconciliation, which will help appoint the first board of directors, told us:

By introducing one, you perhaps introduce four, and then introducing another one, and before you know it you have the United Nations.

He further noted:

. . . I would throw up a lot of caution about introducing this group or that group as if to say the only way to have a voice in this structure is not through the dialogue but you have to sit at the table, at the board. As an initial board, we are going to carefully find people who have had experience in doing reconciliation in Canada already. We are looking for technicians. We are not looking for another political organization that will get between the people and the government. That is not what we’re interested in.

I also want to note that some of the discussions about representation on the board of directors are connected to broader debates about Indigenous identity.

It is Indigenous peoples, not parliamentarians, who should decide who should or can represent us, or make decisions on our behalf. Given that we are not a monolith, it is not surprising that there is a diversity of perspectives on these matters. There is a historical and contemporary context that needs to be addressed, and many issues remain unresolved, including when it comes to individuals who have been disconnected from their families and communities through forced assimilation.

Indigenous peoples need to be given space to not only navigate these tensions, but also to heal and reconcile. This point was eloquently made by witness Jay Launière-Mathias of Puamun Meshkenu. In speaking about the importance of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples, he stated:

Often talked about is reconciliation between Indigenous people and institutions, whether the Canadian government, departments, municipalities or provincial governments. That is a necessary part of reconciliation, and we are on that journey now.

Also necessary is reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canadians. That, too, is ongoing. However, reconciliation between Indigenous people is less visible in the bill. Reconciliation on that level is paramount in my view. As a young Indigenous person, I must come to terms with my history, the wounds of the past and the intergenerational trauma that continues to be passed on, and we must also reconcile amongst ourselves.

When asked to elaborate, Launière-Mathias added:

Then, at the community level — and we see it — there is a lot of racism between Indigenous people themselves, between different nations, between members of the same community, between those who live on reserve and those who live in urban areas. That, too, is a part of reconciliation we have to engage in. . . . We can’t change the past, and neither can the creation of a national council. What we can do, however, is see to it that certain things don’t happen again and understand how we can work together to bring about that reconciliation. . . .

The us-versus-them dynamic, which did not exist before colonization, is deeply hurtful and damaging to Indigenous peoples. As we debate this bill further, we have to be cautious about not fuelling division, as well as lateral violence, among Indigenous peoples. Wela’lin. Thank you.

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