A call to follow through on relationship building

November / December 2017   Comments

Pre-existing ideas affect how systems define a problem.

Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, oversaw the forced assimilation of Indigenous children through the Indian Residential School system. The department’s goal, he stated, was to get rid of the Indian problem. Such convictions are deeply rooted, and they have been perpetuated throughout the years in how the federal government of the day developed its relationship with Indigenous Peoples. The impact of the Indian Residential School system on the Indigenous Peoples of Canada was cultural genocide.

Another example of pre-existing ideas is the body of research that has been effective at promoting racist and discriminatory attitudes and behaviours toward Indigenous Peoples. It is a body of research that continues to grow. Racism and discrimination have very real negative consequences for Indigenous Peoples when it comes to how services, of all kinds, are developed and delivered.

How then do we redesign systems to create equality of services and outcomes, while also advancing self-determination and self-governance?

The federal government is replacing Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada with two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and Indigenous Services. With this action, the government is either taking a step toward restoring and revitalizing the nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown or setting up yet another colonial structure — and perhaps a double one. Prime Minister Trudeau says that the vision is to close the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada by implementing a path toward systemic change that will include true partnerships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Twenty years before, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had acknowledged that new relationships could not be built within the existing structures.

As the two departments are being developed, the federal government must continue to build new relationships with Indigenous Peoples through better engagement with community members and leaders. The focus has to be on collaboration and inclusion of cultural knowledge in any planning and in all actions. If the government aims to truly respect and honour reconciliation, ongoing relationship building is key. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action and the principles outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) point to the kinds of relationships and resources that are working and can be built upon.

Creating these new departments and committing to consulting with Indigenous communities and leaders to direct the work of the departments can be the foundation on which to implement the recommendations of the TRC and the principles of UNDRIP. Government and Indigenous leaders — at all levels — who make better use of their collective knowledge and energy could vastly improve the quality of education and health care, prevent further loss of language and culture, bring about equal access to justice and promote the well-being of every Indigenous child and family in Canada. But these improvements will come only through consultation and true and respectful partnerships. Once governments, community leaders and community members are listening to one another and working together to implement strategies for a better future, they must also recognize that the interventions need to be creative, practical and sustainable. Too many communities have been waiting for clean running water, housing and equal access to health care and education.

Governments and the Indigenous leaders who represent Indigenous Peoples must keep in mind that success at making a system more efficient does not ensure better outcomes.

I want to believe that these new federal departments will focus on the relationship building that needs to be done. While all of us have a responsibility to honour the TRC’s calls to action, I want to see the government be successful at moving the country toward reconciliation. I hope that the government’s recent actions do not turn out to be yet another disappointment for Indigenous Peoples.

Sherri Di Lallo, RN, MN

Sherri Di Lallo, RN, MN, is the Indigenous child health nurse coordinator, Awasisak Indigenous Health Program, Stollery Children’s Hospital, Edmonton.

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