Following the release of the 2015 TRC Final Report, much attention was focused on 94 Calls to Action, especially as it came on the heels of the Idle No More Movement, which had focused the country’s attention on Indigenous issues. Many were looking at challenges but also potential solutions to the problem of our poor collective relationship. Attention has turned in recent years toward understanding how to implement these recommendations across themes and jurisdictions. Tracking the Calls has been done at the Assembly of First Nations and the Federal Government, as well as media outlets CBC and APTN. But the two most rigorous and in-depth approaches to tracking have been undertaken by Yellowhead Institute (Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby) and the Indigenous Watchdog (Douglas Sinclair).
The two approaches are very different — Jewell and Mosby offer annual, in-depth analysis, while Sinclair maintains a running record of progress on implementation with periodic analysis. However, both have ended up with similar results: that a mere 11 of the 94 Calls to Action have been completed to date.
On the eve of the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, given our own roles in the Calls to Action research (Hayden has edited all previous Yellowhead editions, and Kelsi provides research support on the 2022 Yellowhead report), we wanted to discuss with Eva and Douglas how they approach this work, the trends they see in progress (and not progress), and why the Calls to Action matter to them.
Hayden: We know how laborious and difficult the process of tracking Calls to Action implementation is. At Yellowhead, we work all year on tracking progress, and Doug, you do as well. How do you make sense of implementation; or, put another way, what is your process for tracking progress on the Calls to Action?
Douglas: For me, the key thing is to aggregate many different sources of information. So I use NationTalk, APTN, CBC, First Peoples Law Report, national media generally, press releases, white papers, and so on. And as I gather the information, I work to create an accurate representation of what is actually happening on each of the Calls. I also maintain a consistent organizational structure across all the Calls and that informs the “Current Reality” for each Call to Action theme. That is difficult because the status of each of the calls is variable. For example, Indigenous Watchdog assigns a status to each Call, whether it’s “complete,” “not started,” “stalled,” or “in progress. And that status can go back and forth”. The explanation as to why a status changes is based on the evidence that is gathered. In my process, I also note who is accountable — this is the key to keeping feet to the fire and demonstrating what is happening for each Call, positive or negative. I attempt to be as objective as possible and have over two thousand embedded links for readers to review the original source, to read for themselves.
Eva: I like Indigenous Watchdog’s approach because it offers some more nuance on the path to a Call’s completion. For us, we are just, “Is it done or not?” We use this methodology because I think there is ample room to be strict. So many of these Calls to Action are reiterations of recommendations and past reports. We have been waiting as Indigenous peoples for a long time for these structures to change, and I think making the methodology of whether they’re completed or not ensures a level of accountability that really matters on the ground for Indigenous peoples. “Projects underway” are not going to prevent more Indigenous youth from being taken into care, or prevent families from substandard housing conditions that may lead to further economic and education gaps, or the very real infrastructure issues. “Projects underway” allows the government to say, “Just wait a little bit longer; things are on the way; things are coming.” We have dealt with this for too long.
Kelsi: These are basically two different strategies for holding the federal government accountable. And within them, Douglas, in your system, as you mentioned, you have a “stalled” category (which relates to the MMIWG Inquiry, among others), and Eva and Ian have actually revoked a Call to Action as being completed. That was Call #4, regarding discrimination in child welfare funding. So, can this sort of backsliding that happens on the Calls be seen as a trend? How do you explain it?
Eva: I think that we need to remember that Canada didn’t come to the apology. The TRC never comes to reconciliation or any of this work through their own moral clarity. They never do this because they think it’s the right thing to do. It’s because Indigenous peoples are pushing them and forcing their hand. And the advocacy is changing society so it can no longer tolerate rushing under the rug a violent history of genocide. So, that’s the first point when we’re talking about progress, or lack thereof, on the Calls.
But more, what’s important to remember with the Calls is that they are always relative to the contemporary moment; how committed this country is to ensuring that there are right relations at any given time. If there is a stall or backsliding, it’s a reflection of the desire of Canadians for change at that moment. I still think there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of the Canadian public really understanding this very clear pattern of colonial violence, back to the beginning.
Douglas: I think that’s probably one area — the backsliding — where Indigenous Watchdog gets very granular, microscopic in the level of detail it provides. How and why Calls to Action change from “in progress” to “stalled.” It could be useful to step back and offer a more analytical view like the Yellowhead report does, you know, what’s the big picture? Indigenous Watchdog posts an update every six to eight weeks on everything – good and bad – that has happened within that time period across all Calls to Action – an audit trail as it were. All these updates posted over the last two years present tangible evidence of what’s happening at a higher level, say, for example, which stakeholders are doing what and who isn’t i.e. on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and identifying who supports it and who doesn’t.. This reveals more clearly a lot of the problems surfacing over the past two years, in particular, that create roadblocks to the Calls to Action progress.
Hayden: I like this conversation around thinking of the Calls on a sort of spectrum. And I wonder, since there are only 11 or 12 Calls complete after seven years, if there are there Calls that will just never be finished?
Douglas: I think the Calls, six or seven of them, that deal with land issues around Aboriginal Rights and Title and Indigenous justice systems, to me, those are the biggest challenges. Recognizing Indigenous justice systems, for example, where we’re putting a stake in the ground and saying, “Yes, we’re going to pursue an Indigenous approach,” but then there is this huge reticence on behalf of Canada and the provinces and to a lesser degree the territories. So justice and land, and Aboriginal title issues. Those are the critical ones. How we nudge, push, and ask Canada, “What are you going to do now — right now?” That’s the question.
Hayden: I feel like That’s a question we all want an answer to. But, Eva, as I was asking that question, you were sort of chuckling. So, I assume you have something to say on the Calls that are just not going to get completed.
Eva: If we’re getting really technical, the Pope’s apology would never, technically, never be complete because the Call to Action asked for an apology one year after the release of the report, and that just never happened. The Call also asked the Pope to recognize the role of the Church in the Indian residential school system, and that didn’t happen either.
Hayden: As you were speaking, I couldn’t help but think about spirit and intent versus literal interpretations. When we think about treaties, obviously, Indigenous people are saying, “Okay, you have this literal text, but we have another interpretation.” Do you think that that applies to the Calls to Action as well, with specific reference to the Pope, I guess?
Eva: It did not meet the standards, not just of our standards, but also of, you know, Murray Sinclair. Marc Miller even came out and had some critiques about it, which I felt was interesting. So, it was pretty widely received as falling short.
Douglas: It’s not complete. While he did acknowledge some of the elements in the Call after the apology, like sexual abuse and genocide , it was not a part of the official apology. The main objection was the lack of apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church as an institution. So, I have that as “stalled.”
And in terms of literal versus spirit, when you go to the homepage of Indigenous Watchdog, the first thing that you see is the Two Row Wampum belt from the early 1600s. This is an example of the spirit of an original treaty. Consider as well the Royal Proclamation and The Treaty of Niagara that was also based on wampum belts. It wasn’t just an exchange, that is, an agreement: the spirit of the wampum belt is in the image that speaks louder than any words, and that spirit wins out for me. And when you apply that to the Calls, you can’t just say, for example, that the MMIWG Inquiry is complete, because it’s not — at least not morally and ethically until the Calls to Justice have been implemented. That’s what I think when it comes to spirit and intent versus literal.
Kelsi: So, there are lots of failures. But we also want to know where the reconciliatory successes are. Where do you see the most progress, and maybe when do you see the most progress?
Douglas: For me, it’s probably around language revitalization. I see something positive in the appointment of a Language Commissioner with representation for each of First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Two of the five language Calls are done, although there are some issues with the Languages Act because the Inuit bitterly opposed it. Because of that, Call to Action # 14 is “stalled.” With only 11 Calls to Action complete and 35% stalled and not started, the lack of progress is shocking.
Eva: I think it’s interesting that this is my answer because last year I was so critical, but I have to say the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation simply because it brings the conversation back into focus every single year. When it first happened, a lot of people, I think, were really hurt that the Federal Government made a holiday — just the way it was approached on the part of the Government, especially with the timing, it seemed like a knee-jerk response to some really horrific revelations. I was hearing in my own community that folks were upset that federal civil servants — the very same ones working in these structures that oppress us — are getting a day off because of our suffering. To reference a conversation I had with Doug last week: there is this unintended consequence that truth and reconciliation will be in the conversation. You can guarantee it for at least one day a year. And I think that might actually be strategically critical for the completion of the Calls to Actions.
Hayden: This response sort of complicates our next question. Kelsi was telling me yesterday about thinking of the Calls in specific categories like “acknowledgement” Calls or “inclusion-based” Calls, or even “decolonial” Calls. For example, including Indigenous content in the Oath of Citizenship is very inclusive as opposed to repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and affirming Indigenous law-making, which are more decolonial. We would have said the National Day was an acknowledgement. But maybe there is more nuance here. Anyway, our question is, do you also see this type of categorization, and is there a tension between them?
Doug: I think inclusion-type calls are important in a symbolic way, but they don’t deal with the fundamental issues underlying them. In fact, they are easier to address and, because of that, offer optics that things are progressing and moving along. Whereas the challenging ones — maybe those are more decolonial — haven’t started yet. They are not symbolic or inclusive. They’re not any of those categories. I mean, they’re fundamentally altering a relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. Maybe we can include here the Call for a new Covenant of Reconciliation, a new Royal Proclamation. These go back to the sort of nation-to-nation political statement.
But there is a fundamental problem here, too, in this kind of categorization: How do you characterize the Calls in a way that allows progress to be made? Unfortunately, right now, it is adversarial. Section 35 of the Constitution doesn’t acknowledge nation-to-nation relationships and doesn’t acknowledge the Aboriginal rights and title. These are fundamental roadblocks.
Eva: I want to believe that there’s enough attention, understanding, and responsibility on the part of Canadians to have an appetite for reconciliation. But I think the reality is that there is a limited shelf life, as Kris Statnyk said in our report last year. Sometimes, I worry that it’s like a zero-sum game — that reconciliation in some areas means no reconciliation in others. And this is why I think we had initially started thinking about some of the Calls to Action on that spectrum of symbolic versus structural, where we were seeing a lot of commitment to symbolic but not to the structural, impactful Calls, even the ones that are relatively easy to complete. Like the reporting ones should be easy but aren’t complete. Why?
Partly because I don’t think Canadians recognize or realize that the structures that harmed in the past — like residential schools — still harm today. And, you know, we talk about this all the time. It’s ongoing. And I just want the suffering to stop; I just want the violence to stop.
Doug: Most Canadians just don’t have any insight into that at all, right? They don’t have to deal with some of the child welfare issues; they don’t have to deal with the level of systemic discrimination, health injustice, or structural barriers within society generally. So their attention span is short.
Eva: Yes, and there is that tension. Some of the Calls are like, “Educate Canadians,” and some of them are like, “Stop taking our children.” Canadians can get stuck in the either/or and choose the easy way out. There is the tension.
Kelsi: So, we mentioned at the beginning of this interview how laborious this work is — and that is coming through in some of the discussion so far — but I also know just from supporting and working with you, Eva, that it’s really exhausting and frustrating and, at times, sad. So the question is, why do you do it? Despite challenges and implementation and the tensions in these Calls to Action themselves, where do you think the value is in doing the work that you do?
Doug: Well, for me, the value is that it raises awareness; it keeps it constantly in the public eye. Indigenous Watchdog is always there; nothing goes away. All the content is there, and it’s structured in a way that people can go dip their toes or dive as deep as they want. They can skim the surface and gather the information they need around the Calls or read all day. Positive and negative. And the more I evolved the organizing principles and structure, the more passionate I got. Helping people understand why the world is the way it is for Indigenous people, raising awareness and converting that awareness and understanding into positive action — whether it’s a policy analyst, or a researcher, or a civil servant — is valuable.
Kelsi: Eva, what about you?
Eva: I grew up knowing and seeing survivors in my family and in my community. I grew up on the grounds of a residential school. My whole family was impacted by it, and even then, I still feel like I’ve been able to sidestep a lot of the harms, the extreme harms that people still face. I have access, responsibility, and an agenda for my community to do this work.
My community, my people, have dignity and integrity. But we’re not being treated that way in our own homeland. And so my agenda is to hold accountable governments that want to talk really nice words and seem moral on the world stage; my job is to say, “Put your money where your mouth is.” I do this because I come from a community that has survived.
On September 29, 2022 at 1pm EST Yellowhead Institute will be hosting a Calls to Action Conversation on Truth and Reconciliation. An esteemed panel of Indigenous leaders – Cindy Blackstock, Kisha Supernant, Sheila Cote-Meek, Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Kunuk Inutiq, Janet Smylie, and Scott Franks – will discuss the importance of the ‘Legacy’ Calls to Action (1-42), the injustice of their incompletion, and the barriers to their completion. The discussion will be hosted by Dr. Eva Jewell and Dr. Ian Mosby. Please join us for the livestream of this event on YouTube. The recording will be available to view until midnight on September 30, 2022.
Image: Sonny Assu (Ligwiłda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) – ‘The Child”