October 6, 2022
Check against delivery
It’s a pleasure to be here in Calgary to deliver the LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture. I appreciate the efforts of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and my predecessor, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, and John Ralston Saul, for bringing us all together.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge and thank the peoples of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. We gather on their land and their traditional territories. The Nations of the Treaty 7 region are: the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations, who form the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, who form the Stoney Nakoda First Nations; and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. Calgary is also home to the historic Northwest Métis and to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3. And we acknowledge all Indigenous urban Calgarians who have made this city their home.
This is not the first acknowledgement that you’ve heard in your lives. This is not even the first one you’ve heard today. It has become commonplace to acknowledge the land we are on, particularly when we meet in person like this.
These land acknowledgements have deep meaning, and have been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Acknowledgements upheld territorial protocols and respected the autonomy of distinct nations. So when I acknowledge the Treaty 7 peoples, I’m showing them my gratitude for welcoming us to their land.
This is an example of reconciliation in action.
Reconciliation has been much on our minds and in the conscience of the country. Last week, we marked the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
As Madame Clarkson will undoubtedly attest, when you are appointed governor general, the immediate challenge is to take the pulse of the nation and to understand how the office of governor general can contribute to national conversations.
In moments of quiet reflection during my first year, I thought about the significance of my appointment as governor general—the first Indigenous person to serve in this role. I do believe it reflects our collective aspiration as a country to build a more inclusive, just and equitable society.
I also believe that there is an urgency for our country to move forward—collectively and harmoniously—on the path of reconciliation.
This word has many meanings and can be interpreted many ways.
Reconciliation is not one act or one moment. It’s an ongoing process that involves renewing our relationship with each other and with the land.
To put it another way, reconciliation is a responsibility of citizenship.
Before we move forward, allow me to step back in time.
In 1981, I was part of the negotiating team on behalf of Inuit that contributed to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution. Back then, First Nations, Inuit and Métis were all lumped into one group called “aboriginal peoples.” The position that the Indigenous leaders took was that we were distinct peoples with unique identities, languages, cultures and history.
Finally, through Section 35 of the Act, we achieved recognition of three distinct Indigenous peoples of Canada—First Nations, Inuit and Métis—and affirmation of the rights and treaty rights of Canada’s first peoples. A vital step forward.
Years later, in 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report. This was an important moment for Indigenous peoples and it stands out as a starting point for our country’s reckoning with reconciliation. This report asked one over-riding question: What are the foundations of a fair and honourable relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of Canada?
While Indigenous peoples knew what happened at residential schools, there was not yet a widespread acceptance, knowledge or understanding by other Canadians of the great pain and damage caused by the discriminatory policies that led to the creation of these schools.
For many years within Indigenous communities, people spoke about residential schools and what happened there in whispers, passing down knowledge through stories told about the reality of these schools, about their lasting impacts. This led to much trauma for Indigenous peoples through the generations. The Royal Commission report was the first time that the extent of the devastating impact of residential school policy was illuminated for all Canadians to read.
Since then, we have added to our understanding and knowledge around the real history of these schools. And we now know more about our country’s role in the historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and in creating prejudicial policies. This has been done through the findings of many reports and commissions, including:
- the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry;
- the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
- the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; and
- a 2018 Senate Standing Committee study on The New Relationship Between the Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples.
But no report has shaken Canadians as much as the physical findings of unmarked graves of children at the sites of former residential schools.
I saw this earlier this year, when I visited the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops. I saw the sprawling red-bricked building that was the residential school and the site, among the apple trees, where a preliminary survey had uncovered the remains of 215 children buried there.
It was heart-wrenching to see this first-hand, but I also saw a national outpouring of support for Indigenous peoples and their families who were in mourning, and I saw the outrage that such a beautiful place could contain so many horrors.
For the last year, more and more Canadians are listening and understanding.
Canadians are ready to embrace reconciliation.
And they are embracing it.
In my lifetime, I have seen and lived first-hand the impact of Canada’s residential school and other colonial policies. And I have also witnessed the long arc of our country’s reckoning with this history.
Just consider how our relationships have changed over the years. How reconciliation has changed. When I was growing up, children were taken away to residential schools, devastating our community. And at the day school I attended, I was punished if I spoke my language, Inuktitut.
Today, Indigenous children are able to go to school in their own communities and to study and live in their own languages. Of course, there are still struggles, and access to quality education is still a key issue in many Indigenous communities. But Indigenous peoples, in greater number, are revitalizing and reclaiming their culture, language and traditions. And now, they have more opportunities to further their education—certainly more opportunities than I did when I was growing up. But there is still more to be done.
As citizens of this country, we have a responsibility to listen, to build a country with the foundations of understanding and respect. These two fundamental principles are also Indigenous values.
As I said earlier, reconciliation is a responsibility of citizenship. Simply look at the oath of citizenship for confirmation. Last year, the oath was revised. Today, new Canadians pledge “that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
And fulfilling these duties doesn’t start with the oath, but is a process that begins when new Canadians arrive in their new home.
It begins with learning about the diversity of Indigenous communities, of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. To give you an idea:
- Indigenous peoples represent about 5% of Canada’s population.
- Yet, they are the fastest-growing segment in Canada.
- They are also young, with kids 14 and under accounting for more than 25% of the Indigenous population.
- There are more than 630 First Nations in Canada, and 53 Inuit communities across the Northern and Arctic region of Canada, which makes up Inuit Nunangat.
- The Métis peoples’ homeland includes Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, northwest Ontario, northeast British Columbia, northern Montana and North Dakota.
- There are 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada that fall into 12 separate language families.
You can see that just as Canada is a diverse nation, so, too, are Indigenous peoples. Each group has its own history with distinct rights, traditional land, culture, language, spiritual beliefs and legal systems.
I commend all the organizations across Canada that are providing opportunities for learning.
If there’s one message to share with Canadians newly arrived and those who have been here for generations, it’s that it’s never too early, or late, to start learning.
The key is respectfully listening to—and hearing—other perspectives.
What I have touched on so far has been about renewing our relationship and forging new ones through reconciliation.
When people come to Canada, there is an expectation that we will share our land with them—to create new opportunities, to raise a family, to build community.
But there is also a reciprocal responsibility for new Canadians: to give back; to care for and learn about Canada and the land, the good and the bad. We cannot and should not gloss over this country’s harmful history with Indigenous peoples. Nor should we ignore our struggles to become a diverse and inclusive nation through fair immigration policies. Indigenous peoples and newcomers to Canada are finding ways to learn from each other, to learn about each other.
Together, we can face any challenge.
Together, we can move forward.
Living equally, peacefully, with knowledge, respect and reconciliation at the centre of all things.
In my travels across Canada, before and since being appointed governor general, non-Indigenous Canadians often ask how they can participate in reconciliation.
I do understand that it can be unfamiliar ground, and perhaps daunting. But like so many other unknowns in life, fear should not guide our decisions around reconciliation. Truth-telling and reconciliation is not about guilt or assigning blame.
And I readily admit that the road to reconciliation and healing is different for everyone. I, too, am learning as I have conversations with Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
So let me give you a few examples about how I approach discussions on reconciliation. I speak here to all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but today, I hope that newcomers take these examples to heart. Perhaps this can inspire you at school, at work or around the dinner table!
- I have spoken about how today’s generation of children, and incoming generations, must understand the complete history of Indigenous peoples. Our shared past should be talked about, but also recorded in the history books. The time for “I didn’t know” is over.
- I encourage people to embark on a personal journey of reconciliation and to form relationships with Indigenous peoples. As I mentioned earlier, this is where we can learn about Indigenous communities and culture, the richness of their languages, their worldviews and traditional knowledge.
- I emphasize that reconciliation is about healing. We need the next chapter on reconciliation to recognize the urgency of healing and wellness. This includes strengthening access to adaptive mental health and addiction supports, particularly those that focus on using traditional methods of healing body, mind and spirit. We need these in Northern, rural and remote places in Canada, but also in Canada’s urban centres, which are home to diverse immigrant populations and an increasingly large number of urban Indigenous peoples—First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
- And in my travels I have made a point of asking youth to be part of my discussions, as I did last week in Regina, when I spoke to thousands of young people. And for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we hosted youth at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa, to foster learning about First Nations, Inuit and Métis. We can’t overlook the important role young people play in reconciliation. Their generation, after all, is the most diverse in the history of Canada. They need to be sitting at the table, participating in discussions in their own right, alongside other Canadians, not relegated to only meeting with other youth.
Young people are more open to change, to listening and learning. Their perspectives help shape and ensure decisions respect Canada’s different cultures, traditions and values. In Canada’s first State of Youth Report, published in 2021, young people shared that reconciliation “Is not an Indigenous only problem, we are all in the problem and the solution.”
It is a responsibility of all citizens.
The same could be said of newcomers, who arrive in Canada with fresh minds, open hearts and determined wills.
In fact, diversity, inclusion and reconciliation go hand-in-hand. Canada needs to be inclusive in developing policies and legislation. Remember to involve Indigenous voices in decisions that impact Indigenous peoples, and to recognize Indigenous knowledge systems. Find ways to be more inclusive with recruitment, education, language and more.
For all Canadians, reconciliation is about making safe spaces for conversations. It’s about the comfortable and uncomfortable exchange of thoughts, perspectives and better ways of doing things.
The Honourable Murray Sinclair is a former senator and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the recipient of the 5th Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. I wanted to share his words with you from last year, as Canada was set to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. He said:
“…we will not achieve reconciliation in my lifetime. We will probably not achieve it in the lifetime of my children. We may not even achieve it in the lifetime of my grandchildren. But if we make a concerted effort … then eventually we will be able, some day, to wake up and, to our surprise, find that we are treating each other in a way that was intended when contact was first made.”
Together, we can not only champion reconciliation and rebuild trust, but also work towards that “some day” Murray talked about. That “some day” needs to start today.
We need to move from learning and understanding to action, and we need to understand that reconciliation in action means equal access to all aspects of society and life in Canada—education, jobs, health care, clean water and other services. Equal access for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, those who have lived on these lands for thousands of years and those who have just arrived.
This equality of access does not mean identical access or identical services. It means including the people who will be accessing these services in the discussions from the outset to ensure that the services reflect what the people in these communities need. It is being respectful and inclusive of different cultures, traditions and languages.
It means that in places like James Smith Cree Nation or Inukjuak or Regent Park or Maskwacis or the downtown East Side of Vancouver, services created by and for the people who live in these communities would be available to help prevent such tragedy and crisis before they happen - not just to temporarily help deal with the trauma afterwards.
I leave you with a message of hope.
Hope for a bright and prosperous future for Indigenous peoples, new Canadians, all Canadians. Hope for a truly diverse and inclusive country, where we are free to be who we are, without judgment. Hope for a renewed relationship, reconciliation and healing. Our collective story is always evolving, and I’m optimistic every newcomer to Canada will play a vital role.
In Inuktitut, we would say ajuinnata. This is an important concept for Inuit. It means to never give up, to commit yourselves to action, no matter how difficult the cause may be.
My father always said that if you want change to take place, don’t wait, do it yourself. In other words: get involved.
I walk this journey as governor general, as an Inuk, as a Canadian.
I invite all of you to join me.