Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The time is now for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to finally act on his vow to create “transformative” policy and legal change for Indigenous people, says former cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The Independent MP for Vancouver-Granville spoke with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson following a week that forced the country to reckon with the grisly facts of its residential school system.
Archaeological surveys using ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites, prompting an outpouring of grief among Indigenous communities and urgings for the government to act.
Wilson-Raybould said while Trudeau has taken action during his time in government to support Indigenous communities, he hasn’t yet lived up to his promise to create “transformative” change.
“The prime minister made a commitment to make that transformative change and that’s done through laws — changing laws, policies and the operational practices of government. He hasn’t done that,” she said.
“There have been some measures that the government has taken, but on the transformative measures that were promised, so much was promised and so little was done.”
She pointed to Trudeau’s vow to move beyond the Indian Act, which is the federal legislation at the root of the residential school system and which governs the broader colonial relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people in Canada to this day.
But she said he hasn’t done enough to create the legal foundations needed so that Indigenous communities that choose to do so can remove themselves from that relationship and govern themselves.
“Why is that the case? Well, because indigenous peoples do not necessarily make up a significant portion of the population. We need to have the political will to tackle these issues, even if they don’t necessarily translate into a significant number of votes for a party,” she said.
“I know that the political parties are looking for votes, but this is a human rights issue. This is a moral issue. This is the right thing to do to tackle the reality of Indigenous peoples in this country.”
Wilson-Raybould was a Liberal cabinet minister until 2019 when she resigned amid the SNC-Lavalin scandal, when she accused Trudeau and his government of political interference in the court case of the Quebec engineering giant. The federal ethics commissioner ruled Trudeau did break rules in the case.
Wilson-Raybould is also a former regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations and is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in B.C., and has been an outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights.
Like many Indigenous people across the country, Wilson-Raybould said the past week has been a difficult one for her and for her community. She said while the discovery of the remains in Kamloops wasn’t a surprise, it sparked emotions ranging from horror to frustration and feeling “incredibly angry.”
She added she is “hopeful” the national reckoning will finally lead to real change.
“It feels a bit different,” she said of the current moment.
“We’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, we’ve had the MMIWG important report and Canadians are becoming more aware,” Wilson-Raybould continued.
“I know that Canadians are thirsty for more knowledge and with that I hope comes a continued effort and pressing governments to actually turn the words into action.”
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who also joined the program, said the past week has prompted many conversations about “the speed of reconciliation” and how to keep moving forward.
He said he agreed with Wilson-Raybould that the Indian Act needs to be replaced and that she was “instrumental” during her time in the Liberal cabinet in building a framework towards that.
But he said it’s not the federal government’s job to decide when and how to do that, and that the government is working with Indigenous communities to both address socioeconomic challenges and to build the trust that is needed to be able to navigate a new path forward.
“Communities are saying, ‘Let’s solve this first before you come into our communities with a piece of paper, because we think you’ll break it,'” said Miller, adding the long history of broken promises and the resulting lack of trust in the federal government is a continuing barrier.
“That is an impediment to progress, but I do see hope.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.