This article first appeared in BarTalk, August 2021 here and is republished with permission.
The Path to Reconciliation
I have always been a proud Canadian. When I backpacked internationally, I was certain to display my embroidered Canadian flag. I was taught that Canada’s social fabric is a mosaic, not a melting pot. Brightly coloured pieces of ethnicity, culture, language, racial identity, sexual orientation, and gender identity inlayed side-by-side, creating harmonious beauty. That everyone is equal before and under the law, and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination. Recently, however, my utopian vision of Canada has been shattered.
In recognition of National Indigenous History Month in June, more than 500 radio stations across Canada collaborated to amplify, elevate, listen to, and learn from Indigenous voices with A Day to Listen on June 30. The collaboration followed public announcements of the remains of Indigenous children being found buried on the grounds of residential school sites within Canada. As I listened that day, I was struck by an elder citing the Christian hymn Amazing Grace. She spoke of the hymn having been written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman, John Newton. Briefly, Newton was conscripted into the Royal Navy, later became involved in the Atlantic slave trade, and after a near-death experience became an abolitionist. Amazing Grace was written to illustrate a sermon he delivered on New Year’s Day of 1773. The elder quoted from the first verse of the hymn, stating:
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
Was blind, but now I see.
She inferred that as Indigenous children are being found, Canada is no longer blind.
Canada’s residential school system was an education system in name only. These “schools” were created to weaken family ties and cultural underpinnings. They aimed to indoctrinate Indigenous children into the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society.1 The residential school experience has been hidden for most of Canada’s history, until survivors found the strength and courage to bring their experiences to light culminating in the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada’s history.
While many Canadians expressed shock and horror upon hearing of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves, Indigenous communities have known and shared this truth for decades while searching for their loved ones. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”) reported in 2015 that at least 6,000 children never returned home from attending residential schools. The CBA continues to call on government and the churches involved to fully implement and resource the TRC’s Calls to Action 71-76, which focus on missing children and unmarked burials. As CBA President Brad Regehr, member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, states: “Finding and returning these missing children is a necessary step toward healing for Indigenous peoples and communities — and for Canada as a whole — as well as a critical part of this country’s reconciliation journey.”
The historical and ongoing devastation of colonization experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada remains prevalent. The systemic challenges — particularly in the criminal, child protection, and family justice sectors — demand our attention as a profession. Indigenous children continue to be removed from their families and communities today. We must do better. As the TRC executive summary preface states: “Getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder. It requires that the paternalistic and racist foundations of the residential school system be rejected as the basis for an ongoing relationship. Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed.”
This is my last column as CBABC President and I would like to take this opportunity to personally acknowledge, with sorrow and regret, the significant harm done to Indigenous peoples as a result of the role the legal profession played in the implementation and enforcement of assimilationist government laws and policies. This happened under our watch.
Reconciliation will take time and effort from each of us. As lawyers — as warriors of justice — we are well positioned to lead the charge. We must work to atone for the role we played in Canada’s dark history and to achieve true reconciliation. Only then can we restore pride in our country and profession.
It has been an absolute honour and privilege to serve as your president. I am a better person and lawyer for having had the opportunity. Thank you.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, Preface. | ↩