Understanding and Taking Action on Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples

R&G is located in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaq and First Nations people are integral to our culture, social fabric, and environment, yet Canada has had a complex history with Indigenous Peoples characterized by social exclusion, systemic racism, and injustice.

In May of 2021, over 200 suspicious anomalies were detected on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC. The anomalies were found using ground penetrating radar and though unconfirmed, are suspected to be potential graves of former residential school children. Though this was not a surprise to many of these kids’ families, uncovering these potential remains caused grief for many across Canada and exposed old wounds for those affected by residential schools. This event has led to renewed calls for action on truth, reconciliation, and decolonization, and it was a shock to many Canadians who didn’t fully understand the seriousness of residential schools and their legacy in our communities.

As more people begin their journey of understanding Canada’s legacy with Indigenous peoples, we thought we would share what we know so that more Canadians can do their part to support truth, reconciliation and decolonization. This post provides a very brief overview of where we are today, how we got here, and what we can do to take action.

First of all, what do we mean when we say Indigenous peoples?

Indigenous is a term used around the world to describe peoples or cultures who inhabited a place before it was colonized. In Canada, there are three groups of Indigenous people who all have their own cultures, languages, histories, and identities: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Between these three cultures, almost 1.8 million people in Canada identify as an Indigenous or Aboriginal person—about 5% of our population.

Where are we now?

Canada’s Indigenous population is one of the country’s most vulnerable, with higher rates of homelessness, worse education outcomes, and worse physical and mental health outcomes than the general population. Here are just a few stats to give you an idea:

  • The average life expectancy of an Inuk man is 15 years lower than the life expectancy of a non-Indigenous person. 
  • Even though Indigenous people make up only 5% of the general population, they represent 26% of the prison population. 
  • 1 in 4 Indigenous people are living in poverty, while 1 in 15 in urban areas are homeless. 
  • Just 22% of Indigenous people have a college diploma or university degree, compared to 45% for non-Indigenous people. 
  • Suicide among Indigenous people is three times higher than among non-Indigenous people.

Indigenous people in Canada are also going to be disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.

60% of Indigenous people live in rural or remote areas, and many still rely on traditional hunting and fishing practices for their livelihood and nourishment. In Northern Canada, many also rely on ice roads in the winter for access in and out of their communities, like for buying food or seeing a doctor. With the warming climate, many of these communities are growing more isolated because the ice roads are becoming unreliable. Food security is also going to become a greater issue, as melting ice gives them less options for arctic hunting, and rising sea levels mixing with freshwater lakes and rivers will hurt access to fishing. Thawing permafrost has already caused severe damage to infrastructure in many northern communities, displacing families and costing millions in repairs.

How did we get here?

Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples is long and complex, and it requires much more than just a blog post to really do it justice—but we’ve done our best, and we plan to keep updating these resources and adding to our understanding. Here are five key events that took place which led us to where we are today:

    1. When Europeans first colonized North America, they brought diseases with them Indigenous people had no immunity to, like smallpox. Without immunity, many communities lost as much as 75% of their populations.
    2. In the 1800s, Nations were forcibly pushed further into remote areas (what are now reserves) as settlers often violently coerced and stole more land. This cut many communities off from their traditional hunting and spiritual grounds.
    3. At the same time, the English began a period of “civilization” to assimilate Indigenous people into European culture. They took strict control of reserves, often not letting communities practice their own cultures and ceremonies. They also instituted a pass system, where community members weren’t allowed to leave for hunting or trapping without written permission.
    4. In 1857 the residential school system was created. It took 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and put them in schools where they were forbidden from speaking their own language, practicing their culture or seeing their families. Young children were regularly abused, and it is currently estimated that 4,200 had died by the time the last school closed in 1996.
    5. Between 1950 and 1990, provincial child welfare departments removed Indigenous children from their families and communities en masse in what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. Some children were adopted, never knowing where they really came from, while others bounced around the foster care system until adulthood. Recent research suggests that the number of children taken from their families could be 20,000 or more.

The trauma experienced in the residential school and foster care system, and the poverty caused by isolation on reserves has led to both direct and inter-generational trauma, manifesting in high rates of mental health issues, disenfranchisement, and distrust among Indigenous communities. And these effects reverberate today. Between the trauma from residential schools, isolation in remote communities, confusion about self-identity, and systemic racism dating back more than 200 years, Indigenous people in Canada have lower health and education outcomes, as well as higher rates of poverty and incarceration.

Where do we fit in?

By now, everyone has likely heard of Truth and Reconciliation, but what does that mean and how does it affect us? It comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was created to facilitate reconciliation between former residential school students, their families, their communities and all Canadians. In its final report, it outlined 94 Calls to Action, including Call to Action #92 for businesses. It says:

We call upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources. This would include, but not be limited to, the following:

i. Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development Projects.

ii. Ensure that Aboriginal peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that Aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.

iii. Provide education for management and staff on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

Take action.

We are all treaty people, but words alone are not enough and there is no reconciliation without action. There are many businesses who have been working to build respectful relationships with Indigenous communities for many years, but with growing trends in social and environmental sustainability, Indigenous collaboration and economic development is becoming an expectation. Here are some of the initiatives that many businesses are implementing as part of their sustainability commitments, in no particular order:

  • Creating internal initiatives dedicated to increasing the diversity of their workforce
  • Training staff in Indigenous relations, anti-discrimination, tackling unconscious bias, and intercultural competence
  • Prioritizing Indigenous-owned companies in procurement, whether purchasing supplies, hiring contractors, or searching for professional services
  • Setting up community programming that targets support for Indigenous people or communities, like skills training opportunities, funding Indigenous-owned social enterprises, or recreational programs
  • Partnering with Indigenous-owned businesses on projects
  • Making donations to local organizations dedicated to supporting Indigenous people
  • Ensuring meaningful and transparent collaboration with local nations when working on their territories.

Take the first step to being part of the solution: you could educate yourself on Indigenous history and culture, take training on intercultural competence and anti-racism, choose to work with Indigenous companies, or hire a specialist who can support you in fully integrating Indigenous considerations into your business and sustainability program.

For instance, the R&G team has benefited from participating in a Kairos Blanket Exercise workshop, a powerful interactive educational program that teaches the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada from contact onward. You can book a workshop for your team on the Kairos Blanket Exercise Community website, developed and facilitated by KAIROS Canada.

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