Second reading of Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation

By: The Hon. Michèle Audette

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Hon. Michèle Audette moved second reading of Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation.

[Editor’s Note: Senator Audette spoke in Innu.]

She said: Honourable senators, this is the first time in 12 months that I’ve spoken as a senator on Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the establishment of a national council for reconciliation.

This is an emotional week for Indigenous women, but it is also a week filled with history. That’s why I think it’s important for my colleagues to support this bill. This is an important step for many of us across Canada, not only to move forward with reconciliation, but more importantly to strengthen our country’s social fabric.

It is also the culmination of many years of advocacy for many people, groups, experts, thinkers, philosophers, survivors, our knowledge keepers and of course our communities. We’ve been calling for greater accountability for a long time; this isn’t new. We’re also calling for greater accountability for everyone, myself included. I have that role and that responsibility.

In my eyes and in my heart, this bill is of vital importance. It is a step toward healing and reparation. It enables us to take action, which is important because it is more than just words. This is about honouring everyone who came to speak to us and share their truth during the TRC hearings. This is about the families that are still here and the ones that are not, including the little beings of light who were gone too soon.

If Bill C-29 is adopted, the national council for reconciliation will monitor long-term progress, evaluate — which is very important — and report on the implementation of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This is very important.

It will also respond to Call to Action 53 to create this national council for reconciliation. I think it is very important that it will also respond to Calls 54, 55 and 56, which deal with funding, responsibilities and transparency agreements between the government and the council.

These are hard truths, but it’s important for us to continue to share them. We have a duty to do so.

As you know, colleagues, before the first contact with Europeans, First Peoples were a sovereign society with their own systems of governance. We lived according to rules of reciprocity, interdependence, and respect for the land and what it provides. Even then, there was diversity among First Peoples. I have said it before and I will say it again: Our ancestors welcomed the so-called great explorers. We shared with them our knowledge, our science, our medicine and our way of living on the land. We taught them how to survive.

Things changed when greed took over the relationship between our nations. We went from being economic and military allies to being an Indian problem. We did not learn this until later, after we educated ourselves about our own history. What I also know is that we went from being welcoming, warm, strong people to being heathen, savage, inferior, lazy, and the list goes on.

As with so many people, I am the product of a residential school. I’m the daughter of a residential school survivor, Evelyne. Some of my colleagues here in this chamber are also residential school survivors. It is the story of my mom, my auntie, my uncles and my mother-in-law. It is also your story, my dear colleagues from the Indigenous communities. But what if it was also the story of all of us?

Throughout my childhood, in my beautiful Maliotenam on the beautiful North Shore near Sept-Îles, I normalized the effects of colonial violence. For a long time, I believed that our life was the result of destructive policies, and that was what was setting off each of my five senses daily. Do you know why I thought that? It was because I didn’t know the source of this violence, this way of being or this uneasiness; I didn’t know where it all came from. However, as we grow older, we come to realize that we’re all connected by this little thread. Then the domino effect kicks in and we realize that we’re being stripped of our identity, our language — my Innu-aimun — our relationship with the land and, above all, our dignity.

An Atikamekw residential school survivor wrote a book called Je reviens. I want to read you the introduction, which says, and I quote:

My story is your story. We have no reason to be ashamed. Our children and grandchildren have the right to know. Taken from our families, uprooted from our culture and traditions, we thought that we had lost all of our origins, losses that we thought we would carry in our hearts forever.

Non-Indigenous people never knew the real story of residential schools. Those who did know it, never dared to talk about it.

Then, one day, there were some elders who had enough courage and bravery to speak out, to reveal what happened so that everyone would know. I admire those who wanted to speak out and I’m deeply grateful to them.

The truth will heal us.

Senators, I think you will understand that truth is a way for me to heal too, as is an understanding of Indigenous peoples’ past.

How could I change my feelings of rage and shame? How could we stop normalizing what we hear people saying about us, that we’re “savages,” inferior beings, lazy or slackers? At some point, I realized that the way for me to stop doing that was to set down my heavy burden of de-victimization and focus on rebuilding. I had to understand, to reclaim my history, the history of Indigenous peoples, and above all, to understand the systemic causes of that history.

I didn’t learn any of this in school. I came to understand it by listening, reading, and from the reports of the commissions of inquiry. I read in a report from the Bagot Commission in 1844 that it was believed that if Indigenous children were separated from their parents, that would ensure their assimilation.

Later, when I was president of Quebec Native Women, I learned about the existence of An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes, 1857. It talks about us, who had ancient knowledge, and yet they wanted to assimilate us gradually as though we were incapable of doing anything. That hurts and it becomes hard to take.

Later, still through this way of learning, I found out that, in 1867, the federal government took control of the First Nations and this authority also extended to the education of Indians.

All this became official in 1883, when Prime Minister John A. Macdonald brought in residential schools to deal with the Indian issue, thereby “killing the Indian in the heart of the child.”

More than 150,000 children were forcefully brought to these places. As you’ve already seen and heard, our ancestors were forcefully brought to these residential schools, these cursed places as some like to say, where they suffered abuse to their souls, their bodies, their way of life, places where people were punished for speaking their Indigenous languages, our beautiful languages.

Today, at 51, like many other people, I have to relearn our language.

However, in 1922, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce published The Story of a National Crime, a book that exposed the neglect that students were subjected to. I wish I’d known this at a younger age, at an earlier point in my process. I wish I’d understood that these little beings of light, these tiny human beings would never return to our land because they were guinea pigs used for research, starved to death, or suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that took them too soon.

At the same time, my grandmother, my little nukum, also explained to me the memory she has, as do many other women and men from that time, and how all of this has left silences in our communities. It sent elders and parents into the dark abyss, and it broke the parental bond. It broke our values by eroding our family values. It broke and destroyed our relationship and our reciprocity, the interdependence that exists between a mother and her children and between a community and its children, but also between parents. It ended up breaking so many things.

Now I’m beginning to understand. We also saw, a few moons ago last year, how struck everyone was when it came to be known that these little beings of light were buried in unmarked graves. The reaction was palpable, but for many of us it was something we had already expressed and explained.

Fortunately, communities have done incredible work. Yes, it caused them suffering, but it was important to talk about locating and commemorating the little beings of light who left us during the residential school days.

As devastating and difficult as those realities are, they are part of Canada’s history. We cannot undo the past, but we must use these truths to put things right and do better here and now, and especially tomorrow.

Because of the things you have done, I know I don’t have to convince you that this dark time in Canada’s history occurred. Let us also remember why it’s important for me to say these things to you. There are many people here, in the other chamber, in other places and spaces, across Canada and even around the world, who come from these territories and who are rising up today, who are stepping up as the teachers reminding us of this important history.

Like many of us, I carry in my heart always the courageous people who are still living. They are strong, they are resilient, they have suffered and they continue to suffer. They pass on to us their languages, their experience, their ceremonies, their spirituality and their knowledge. I thank them.

There isn’t just one path to recovery, there are many, and we must respect these differences and move forward at each individual’s pace. There is no one solution that will solve everything, there are many. Together we can do more, that much is sure.

Colleagues, I’d like to go over the ins and outs of how this bill came to be introduced in the other place in June 2022. There’s an interesting story there, which I think is worth mentioning.

An interim board was created in 2019, made up of six individuals from First Peoples communities, whether Métis, Inuit or First Nations, including a former TRC commissioner, Wilton Littlechild.

The board was given a mandate to reflect, to propose recommendations for this national council for reconciliation, to name it, to guide its vision, mission, mandate, structure and funding, and to establish a legislative framework for consultation that could serve as a basis for reflection.

On top of that work, they travelled virtually to several countries, from 1973 until very recently, to document thirty or so truth and reconciliation commissions. They wanted to see what is being done elsewhere. They wanted to see what exists elsewhere once an exercise like this is completed, and what kind of entity does this accountability work.

I draw your attention to the fact that several entities were created to act on the recommendations of these commissions. These entities created different models to guide them. When they tabled their reports, they even added a recommendation; there was a mandate with a beginning and an end. Given that we don’t want to lose momentum, we’re proposing that a transitional committee be established to ensure that the issue remains in the public eye and on the political agenda so that it never again goes, in my words, “poof, and no one talked about it again.”

Next December, this transitional committee will be established and will examine the bill or legislative framework, the model. It will consult academics: Indigenous experts who work in universities, who are lawyers, thinkers, visionaries, men and women in different regions, even artists, to make sure that the right things are being done the right way.

The transitional committee will make recommendations, but it will also exert pressure so that the bill becomes a reality. Why? Because there are a lot of people who would like to see what this council for reconciliation could look like and how it will evolve in their lifetime.

I thank all those who participated in the work from the beginning. You played an important leadership role. I’m thinking of the interim board and the transitional committee. You played an important role in the process and I thank you.

Bill C-29 was introduced in the other place on June 22. Then, in the fall, it passed second reading and was referred to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs on October 6. The committee heard from 32 witnesses, including individuals, organizations, chiefs, men and women who made recommendations to improve the bill. Many changes were made, which are now reflected in the content of this version of the bill.

Honourable senators, the bill proposes a formal structure. This is crucial to achieving sustainable progress and, most importantly, to anchoring the progress we need to see on a daily and long-term basis in an organizational culture, be it political or governmental, across this great country.

Imagine the situation had we created this kind of mechanism when we were going through the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Just imagine. I was there. I was a witness along with my eldest son. We can now look at how that was implemented one year, five years, 10 years, 20 years and 30 years later.

That’s why it’s important to implement the mechanisms that will enable us to follow through on the Calls to Action. To me, this is obviously crucial to improving the lives of First Peoples and to rebuilding our relationship. We do not know each other well enough. There are great divides. They’re there, and we have to rebuild relationships because they’re important.

There must be accountability, and not just amongst ourselves. There are many Canadians and Quebecers who are more informed, better informed and aware of our challenges, the challenges of First Peoples. They also deserve accountability.

I’d also like to present to you the objectives and principles of the proposed bill. It will establish a council as an independent, non-political, permanent and Indigenous-led organization.

This bill will also serve as the legal framework for the national council for reconciliation. It will define the functions of the council, including the monitoring of progress being made towards reconciliation and the preparation of an annual report to Parliament and Canadians.

The bill will also set out the federal government’s responsibilities to help the council carry out its mission. It establishes the process for creating the council, for example, appointing the first directors, the articles of incorporation, the purpose and functions of the council and the responsibilities of the board of directors.

That is all important, especially where I come from. We must ensure that this board of directors includes representatives of the Inuit, First Nations, Métis, seniors, residential school survivors and their descendants — people who have experienced the impact of discriminatory policies — Indigenous organizations, young and older women, men, gender-diverse people from different regions of Canada, including urban, rural and remote regions. In these regions, there are Quebec nations where missionaries spoke French. French was imposed on us and we accepted French; today we speak French, like several nations in Quebec. This bill will have to ensure that those for whom French is their first or second language have their small place in this big family.

Colleagues, the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are a path to follow. They present a road map for all levels of government, for civil society, for teaching institutions and the health sector, and for the private sector.

As Edith Cloutier so eloquently stated when she testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and I quote:

 . . . reconciliation requires collective and sustained efforts over time, but also a willingness to venture down uncharted paths to work together. Innovation is needed to move reconciliation forward, and this relies on trust and complementarity among those who wish to participate in this great reconciliation.

As an aside, this woman represents several realities. She is Anishinaabe, a woman, urban and francophone.

Ms. Cloutier continued, and I quote:

Diversity is represented here, as we are as many men as women. We have to be confident that we will have the capacity, the opportunity, the will and the innovation to choose a board of directors that is representative of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

I thought her testimony was wonderful, and I had to share it with you.

This initiative is important and requires everyone’s commitment. Of course, each of us has the right to say “no.” Each of us has the right to offer ourselves up or simply be a witness and watch it happen. I’m the sponsor of this bill, and there are reasons behind that — this bill gives me the opportunity to commit myself to my past, to our past. It also leads me to commit myself to the present, but above all to build things together. That’s what gets me excited; we have to build things together.

There are thousands of us involved in the decolonization process. Let me tell you a little secret: I make up a lot of words. For me, as an Innu woman — and someone who is overflowing with creativity — I often say “Innuize” instead of decolonize. My children are also Wendat, so they might say, “We need to ‘Wendatize,’ Mom,” instead of saying decolonize. I have to make sure that, for me, this prompts me to “Innuize” a space, to understand the real history of Canada and Indigenous peoples. There are also beautiful things that are worth knowing.

Every day on Facebook, Twitter and other social media — I don’t have a TikTok account but I know others do — in our friendships and our professional relationships, we see the beauty of Indigenous nations across Canada, the celebration of Indigenous languages. We see it. We see a lot of young people reminding us that we are beautiful and proud and that we should honour that.

I can feel the wind of change. It may have been there before, but it is blowing stronger. I know it is there. I thank my parents and ancestors for their strength and sacrifices. I am very grateful to them. Thank you to you too, senators, because, before I came here, I listened to what you were saying, I watched, I read and I saw that there are people here with open hearts, eyes and ears, who are ready to accept our truths. That made it less stressful to become a senator.

I have also often heard it said in this chamber that we have a shared responsibility. The institutions also have a responsibility.

It is important to continually monitor each Call to Action in order to see the meaningful and structural change necessary to improve the lives of our people — or, I should say, the lives of Indigenous people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, emphasizes education as the foundation for raising awareness on what needs to happen to ensure true reconciliation.

I couldn’t agree more. Education plays a key role in addressing the ignorance and unconscious bias about what is happening to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in our own communities. More and more educational institutions are integrating these issues into the curriculum, and are taking the history, or histories, the realities and the contemporary issues of First Peoples into account. This is having a direct effect, then, because teachers, nurses and other professionals in various fields are better equipped, better trained and better informed.

As a result, when we’re appointed to this place, as Indigenous senators, we get fewer requests for assistance. The next generation will have a lot of information. I wish to say thank you to all those institutions doing this educational work. We will see more and more publishing houses taking important steps and giving us this space. We could also encourage some of them to follow suit by integrating the history of First Peoples, by and for First Peoples, into textbooks, so that it becomes part of the organizational culture and doesn’t hinge on the will of individual professors or faculties.

We also know that municipalities and communities together can do wonderful things, if they’re not already doing so, and create spaces where people can share their truths so that we can live together and do things together.

Imagine the survivors who will listen to the government every year. They will hear what’s going on directly from the government, what’s not being done, what’s working, what’s harder. When we know why things haven’t progressed, when we’re told the truth, when someone explains to us why things haven’t progressed, we can understand. However when we’re not told the truth, of course we will take a stand. I think that this will enable us to organize all of that.

This is for everyone who, like me, wants to understand. I need to understand, not because I am a senator, but because I am a mom, a lover, a kokum — a grandmother. I am also the daughter of Évelyne, and I need to understand. The government is going to create important commissions, which will give us a chance to write new chapters, but there’s no accountability mechanism here. We’re voting to create commissions, but they have to be connected to that culture, to that accountability. What then?

For me, Bill C-29 gives us the opportunity to start laying the foundation for the shaputuan, the big tent of the Innus, or to take a step towards our collective responsibility. You will remember that when I gave my inaugural speech I mentioned that I like to bead. I realized that it will be difficult to bead in the Senate because we work hard. However, I can sometimes take a few minutes to do some beading.

I would ask you to recall what I told you: At times, I will leave some beads for you. If you can pick them up and assemble them, together we can create a just, fair society that values every individual’s diversity, language, culture, values and history. I am leaving many beads for you.

Honourable senators, this was a new experience for me. I thank you for listening, for accepting some of my truths and the truths of those I carry in my heart. I know that your questions, your comments and the path that this bill will take will all be in the interest of improving it. Thank you very much.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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