TORONTO — When ground penetrating radar confirmed the existence of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian residential school this past May, the whole country was stunned.
Canadians expressed both sadness and outrage at the failure of churches and governments to work with Indigenous peoples to address the legacy of residential schools.
It should be no surprise that a recent Nanos poll found the majority of Canadians consider reconciliation with Indigenous peoples to be an important consideration in how they will vote in this federal election.
That is a good sign, but how serious are the federal leaders about reconciliation?
If the campaign is any indication, we have some cause for concern. Party leaders only started talking about addressing unmarked graves in response to the flurry of media reports. None of them had this as a priority.
Since the discovery of even more unmarked graves, and just days prior to the election being called, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised $321 million to address unmarked graves and appoint a special interlocutor to recommend legal measures.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh committed to fully fund the search for gravesites and but would appoint a special prosecutor to pursue the perpetrators.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has, on the one hand, promised to develop a plan to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 71 through 76 dealing with unmarked graves, while on the other hand, called for the flags on federal buildings to be raised again.
When asked about the flags at half mast, O’Toole said, “It’s not time to tear to down Canada” and that the federal government should be “proud” to put the Canadian flag back up.
Therein lies the disconnect between politicians and Canadians.
Canadians took to social media to speak out about government inaction; they signed petitions; they held rallies and marches; and the media sustained its coverage of the issue for weeks keeping reconciliation in the forefront.
Indigenous leaders and community members have also been speaking out, holding vigils and ceremonies for the children and calling for flags to stay at half mast while more unmarked graves are located.
Canadians and Indigenous peoples advocated to cancel Canada Day this year, and many wore orange shirts and used it as a day to honour the children instead. More than 50 municipalities officially cancelled their Canada Day celebrations in response. Are the federal leaders that out of sync with their own electorate, that they can’t read the room?
Canadians spent the months just prior to the election being called, calling on governments and churches to do the right thing: support the searches for unmarked graves, turn over all documents related to residential schools, prosecute those who committed these crimes and stop litigating against residential school survivors in court and comply with tribunal decisions to compensate First Nations children in foster care – a legacy of residential schools.
And more than that, since the last election, Canadians have called out governments for not addressing the lack of clean water in First Nations, not acting on the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; or addressing racism in policing and healthcare.
It is going to take more than knee-jerk reactions and stop-gap measures on Indigenous issues to prove to voters that any political party can forge a path forward in partnership with Indigenous peoples on reconciliation.
The tried-and-true election strategy of making political promises is far less effective in an era where two-thirds of Canadians don’t trust politicians. In modern times, where fact and fiction are easily manipulated in social media, conspiracy theories abound on the internet, and political parties engage in attack ads; asking voters to “trust me” on Indigenous reconciliation simply doesn’t hold any weight. It’s time for them to show us. This is especially true for Indigenous peoples who have endured literally centuries broken promises.
If any of these leaders hope to prove to us that they are serious about meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, let’s see them make this a priority in the upcoming debates.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer specializing in Indigenous and human rights law. She is the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University