As Canada has been grappling with the horrific discoveries of mass unmarked graves at the former sites of various residential schools, there have been calls for numerous supports and actions from government officials. While the dark history of these schools has been a subject of discussion for decades now, these recent discoveries have shone a light on the depths of the pain felt by the First Nations children and families affected by this system during its existence, and to this day.

Over the past several weeks, there has been a significant amount of focus on what will be done, and some initiatives have already been put into place. Below, we will highlight some recent changes at the federal and provincial levels in Canada and Alberta specifically.

Federal Truth and Reconciliation Day

The week after the initial discovery of 215 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, the federal government fast-tracked a bill to officially recognize September 30th as Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. The designation means that September 30th will be marked as a day to learn and reflect on Canada’s history in this area, and honour the survivors, their descendants, and those who were victims of the residential school system. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault had the following to say, as he addressed the Senate, acknowledging that the passage of the Bill is just one of many steps needed to address this issue:

Addressing the consequences of colonial violence needs to go beyond words … Bill C-5 is an important step in the path towards reconciliation, which won’t be achieved in the blink of an eye.

The creation of a national day of recognition is one of 94 calls to action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created in 2007 as part of a class action settlement known as the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. While the Bill passed unanimously, some did question the intentions and prioritization of this particular call to action when there has been a distinct lack of movement with respect to the calls to action so far.

Conservative Senate leader Don Plett questioned the Minister about this, asking why this particular action was being given priority:

Minister, is it because it’s easier to give bureaucrats [a holiday], because really it’s bureaucrats that get the day off here, than to work on the more pressing but difficult issues that are facing Indigenous communities every day of the week?

There are also concerns that the day will simply be viewed as a “day off” for those who work in federally regulated jobs. While the intention of the designation is to encourage education and reflection, there is no guarantee that this will be observed. In response, Guilbeault said that the intention is for the day to be treated similarly to Remembrance Day, with a focus on solemn observation.

While the statutory holiday will, so far, only be observed at the federal level, it is possible that provincial governments will follow suit and implement a similar statutory designation.

Alberta Mental Health Initiative

Alberta has taken the recent step of committing $8 million towards addressing health issues in various Indigenous communities. Of the $8 million, nearly $3 million will be set aside to issue as grants directly to individual First Nations, Métis Settlements, and Métis Nation of Alberta communities. Individual grants of $50,000 will be provided to fund self-led counselling services and traditional healing practices for those impacted by residential schools, their families, and those affected by the ongoing discovery of children’s remains at these sites.

The remaining funds will be used to improve the overall health inequity experienced by First Nations communities under Alberta Health Services by enhancing the availability of culturally appropriate services. In making the announcement of the funding initiative, Alberta Minister of Health Services Tyler Shandro addressed the incredible loss highlighted by the recent discoveries:

I cannot fathom that loss. I cannot make it up to you. The residential school system is a stain on our honour and we cannot wash it away. What we can do is show that we can do better. We can join with you in an honourable partnership. And today, as one step, one step in that partnership, we’re here to help you find your own way in healing.

O’Chiese First Nation Chief Douglas Beaverbones, who recently spoke at a ceremony to honour the children whose remains have been discovered in B.C. and Saskatchewan, said the funds are needed by communities that continue to be retraumatized and don’t have the resources to address the issues internally:

It’s a big step for our people. I know it’s not going to heal the wounds and the past trauma we face, but I’m glad that we have the funding to continue with the process we’re facing, to continue just to move forward.

Moving Forward Together

These are steps in the right direction, but still, more is needed to address Canada’s history, and its ongoing inequities affecting First Nations communities.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman regularly work with First Nations on child protection matters. We are passionate advocates of the rights of First Nation children to maintain cultural and community connections throughout the child welfare process. We understand how the system works, and we know how to effectively challenge or advocate at each stage. If your family has become by the child intervention process, or you are seeking guardianship of a child who is the subject of an intervention, please contact our office to discuss your options by calling us at 403-910-3000 or by contacting us online.

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