• Stronghearted Woman listens during a drum circle at Queen's Park in the Walk for Reconciliation in Toronto, (2015). (Marta Iwanek/Getty Images)Source: Marta Iwanek/Getty Images
Access to education and putting Indigenous content on TV - looking into the long-term process of Canada's Indigenous reconciliation.
Natalie Cromb

5 Jun 2017 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2017 - 12:45 PM

As we reflect on last week's Reconciliation Week it's important to consider what the impetus actually is for reconciliation and how we stack up internationally with our efforts. Indigenous people around the world continue to experience oppression and unequal access to basic services and opportunities.

In Australia, the process of reconciliation officially commenced in 1991 after the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report and the government created a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation with a 10 year plan. We are now 26 years down the track and some would say that the state of affairs between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is much the same back when the process for reconciliation commenced.

We continue to see high rates of Indigenous incarceration, high levels of child removal and astonishing rates of Indigenous youth suicide but the most glaring reflection on the shortcomings of the reconciliation efforts to date are the fact that the media and society continues to consider Indigenous people to be a ‘problem’ with the gap widening between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – not closing.


What's going on in Canada?

Canada has a similar experience to Australia; a country colonised by the British Empire who dispossessed a group of Indigenous inhabitants. Today, the socioeconomic data between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is huge, the life expectancy for Indigenous people is 10 years shorter, the suicide rate is ten times higher and intergenerational trauma prevails within the Indigenous population of Canada, as it does in Australia's Aboriginal community. Approximately 4 per cent of Canadians identify as Aboriginal.  

But more eerie parallels like their own stolen generations where children were taken in an attempt by the State and Church to be ‘civilised’ over a 100 year period. These institutions are referred to as 'Indian Residential Schools'. Although formally recognised in the Canadian Constitution of 1982, it was not until a formal apology to the stolen generations in 2008 by then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and the subsequent enactment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada did things really commence with respect to reconciliation efforts.

Although we have a Reconciliation Council in Australia which was established 16 years ago, it is largely advisory and argued as symbolic whereas, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada embarked upon a fulsome review of the history and community affected, in order to provide a report (in 2015 after interviewing 7,000 witnesses) which made 94 recommendations. This included the reform of educational curriculum to make it more culturally appropriate, ensuring;

  • That former students and their families have access to Indigenous history
  • Educators have access to and can share the Indian Residential School history with future generations
  • Researchers can deeply explore the Residential School experience
  • The public can access historical records and other material to help foster reconciliation and healing
  • The history and legacy of the residential school system is never to be forgotten.

And importantly, an increase in Aboriginal programming on the national broadcast network due largely to the fact that societal attitudes have a large bearing on the success or failure of reconciliation, is also included.

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At the outset of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, it was viewed as a slow and long term process and that changes in societal attitudes and un-doing the deep seated and institutionalised racism would be critical to its success whilst also engaging in the other necessary policies of enhancing access to health, education and economic participation in addition to compensatory relief for victims of the stolen generations in addition to addressing the breaches of treaties that had occurred over time.

The Australian Reconciliation Council however, took a different approach after being tasked with the responsibility of addressing the Indigenous disadvantage and its aspirations in employment, health infrastructure and economic development. This task, of itself, was a mammoth one given that the Council was merely able to make recommendations, it had no legislative capacity and no ability to impact upon policies as they apply to Indigenous people.

Whilst we celebrate Reconciliation Week and enjoy the beauty of the Indigenous culture, we must be mindful that although our reconciliation process commenced 17 years prior to Canada’s – due solely to the strategy differences – it's clear that Canada is experiencing more outcomes for their people.

The Australian Reconciliation Council currently focusses on Reconciliation Action Plans and working together with corporate Australia to develop opportunities for Indigenous Australians for economic participation however, there has been little progress in other areas. Whilst we celebrate Reconciliation Week and enjoy the beauty of the Indigenous culture, we must be mindful that although our reconciliation process commenced 17 years prior to Canada’s – due solely to the strategy differences – it's clear that Canada is experiencing more outcomes for their people.

Australia’s curriculum remains largely culturally inappropriate and minimalist and national communications (the media) continues to propagate stereotypes due to the agenda of the prevailing governmental policies and strategies despite the efforts of Indigenous focussed media platforms such as NITV and Koori and CAAMA radio networks.

APTN, Canada's Indigenous Free-To-Air Channel (Facebook)  

The truthful history of this country is violently rejected by the masses when it is raised and without education and the media joining the reconciliation efforts, the generational reconciliation that our own Indigenous Affairs Minister has previously alluded to will sadly not occur.

Minister Scullion, at the time of the Barry Spurr curriculum review controversy, said that he advocates the inclusion of ‘Aboriginal Victorians’ by Richard Broome and ‘The World’s Largest Estate’ by Bill Gammage because it explains the fact that, “this was a highly sophisticated country full of nations with immigration and quarantine rules; with land management procedures and sophisticated cultural practices.”

Minister Scullion recounted his formative years in Africa where he lived in a community that had no white people, so he did not perceive difference between different races. It was not until he moved to Australia that he understood the existence of racism and the prevalence of passive racism throughout communities. “I do see passive racism in the communities all the time and it is eye-opening to see in light of my personal journey,” Minister Scullion told the Koori Mail.

Minister Scullion considers that reconciliation is “inevitable” and quoted Desmond Tutu, who said, Reconciliation is a waste of time because it is inevitable” and detailed that as each generation becomes more educated and more enlightened, the divides between races will diminish.

Unless culturally appropriate educational reform and more positive and honest Indigenous representation in mainstream media becomes a reality, as part of the reconciliation strategy in Australia, we will be stagnant - if not, heading backwards - in the movement toward 'reconciliation', as opposed to climbing aboard the slow and steady progress that our global neighbours are currently embarking. 

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