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National Indigenous Peoples Day: A time for action | Brad Regehr

Monday, June 21, 2021 @ 8:08 AM | By Brad Regehr

Brad Regehr %>
Brad Regehr
It has been a few weeks since the discovery of the bodies of 215 children in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Many people have expressed their shock and outrage, but in the absence of a concrete next step it’s hard to maintain that level of anger against a seemingly intractable problem.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada have seen this cycle play out many times before, with the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and the 2019 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report, and with each of the countless individual instances of injustice that hits the news. There are demands that actions be taken, that things change, and we all feel a moment of optimism that this time will be different. And then life goes on, and the numerous recommendations lie dormant.

I believe the discovery at the former residential school grounds in Kamloops can serve as a fork in the path toward reconciliation: one branch lets us continue on as we have done, accepting promises of action; the other veers off in the direction of demanding follow-through. On this, Indigenous Peoples Day, I want to move down the latter path.

Government action is of course critical to the cause, but as the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), the voice for more than 36,000 lawyers, legal academics, jurists and notaries across the country, I call on all of us — you, me, the legal profession, the justice system, government and institutions — to commit to doing something.

For law firms, action could mean becoming a better ally for Indigenous clients, and creating a welcoming, inclusive space in the firm for Indigenous lawyers and staff. It could be creating a reconciliation website, or learning why some language is helpful and some is harmful. The CBA’s Truth and Reconciliation Toolkit, which we’re launching today, is full of resources to help firms begin or progress on their reconciliation journey.

For the justice system, it can mean taking a hard look at why violence against Indigenous people is so rarely investigated and punished; and dealing with the over-incarceration of Indigenous men and women; and dealing with the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. Systemic racism is woven into the fabric of laws and institutions of Canada that discriminate against Indigenous people. The government has declared itself committed to Indigenous People but neglected its duties, failing to provide necessities of life such as potable water sources, adequate housing and education, or culturally sensitive health and social services.

There was a time, in living memory, when an Indigenous person had to renounce his or her status to seek professional training to become a lawyer or a doctor or even a soldier. This is no longer the case but Indigenous people are still playing catch-up to take their places in the professions in proportionate numbers. Indigenous lawyers entering a courthouse are often mistaken for suspects, or people seeking legal help, and not as colleagues. There is no question that the legal profession and the justice system need to open their doors wider to a more diverse group of practitioners. Nothing succeeds like success, they say — the more often Indigenous children and youth see themselves represented in the ranks of professionals, the more often they’ll understand that they can aspire to such a thing for themselves — or not. The important thing is that it be a legitimate choice.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action focus a lot on the need for education, in the theory that it is only by understanding the actions and failures of history that we will be able to move on in a spirit of trust and goodwill.

“Truth is hard,” former TRC commissioner Murray Sinclair has said. “Reconciliation is harder.”

Let’s all take the path toward action that the discovery in Kamloops has opened up for us. Let’s do something about it.

Brad Regehr, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is a partner with Maurice Law in Winnipeg and the first Indigenous President of the Canadian Bar Association. His grandfather was a residential school survivor.

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