The year 2021 was supposed to be unique in the effort to rebuild the broken relationship between the Canadian government and the country’s Indigenous communities.
The federal election campaign provided many opportunities to establish tangible goals and clear timelines. We spent the last few minutes of the televised leaders’ debate – the one conducted in English – discussing the matter. Also, and for the first time, the country would observe a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation just days after all ballots were cast.
The campaign is now behind us and Canadians have elected a House of Commons that is very similar to the previous one. It is evident that we are not closer to solving the problems plaguing Canada’s First Nations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to travel to Tofino on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation created a new controversy that ultimately led to an expression of contrition that appeared to fall short of an actual apology.
When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about issues related to First Nations communities, we continue to see a public that can be at times distracted and dejected, but also longing for meaningful action.
Across the country, only 45% of Canadians say they followed news stories related to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls “very closely” or “moderately closely,” down two points since 2019. In addition, fewer than one in four Canadians (23%) believe that the inquiry was a success, down four points in just over two years. These numbers suggest that Ottawa cannot continue to point to the recent past as a way to justify its slow pace on this file.
We continue to see a majority of Canadians (53%) believing that a renewed “nation-to-nation” relationship with First Nations can be achieved in Canada, just as Trudeau promised shortly after taking office in December 2015.
Almost six years later, the level of confidence that Canadians have on the goal outlined by the prime minister varies depending on where people reside. While majorities of those who live in Quebec (61%) and Ontario (57%) think the “nation-to-nation” dream can be a reality, the proportion is lower in British Columbia (50%), Alberta (47%), Atlantic Canada (46%) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba (41%).
The recent emphasis on the residential school system has added a new layer of complexity to these discussions. Analyzing the reaction of Canadians has been particularly gloomy. We learned last year that many of the country’s residents aged 55 and over learned little or nothing about this chapter of Canada’s history inside their own classrooms. Their younger counterparts are more likely to be aware of what happened, and to know just how regrettable it was.
When Canadians are asked about five specific ideas and goals related to the relationship with First Nations, our focus turns towards the present. More than four in five Canadians say it is important to end long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities (89%) and to take steps to end bias against Indigenous Canadians in the justice system (86%).
This does not mean that Canadians want to set aside all matters related to the legacy of the residential school system. Significant majorities of residents believe it is important to release all government records (88%), investigate all marked gravesites located near former schools (84%) and demand an apology from the head of the Catholic Church for its role in the system (79%). The debate on what to do about the past should not hinder our ability to manage the present. It is possible to deal with the responsibilities of governments and organized religion without having to fruitlessly choose who is more to blame.
The minority scenario provides opportunities for the governing Liberal Party to build bridges. On matters related to the current well-being of First Nations, the views of voters from the three main parties are similar. Taking steps to ensure that all Canadians have access to clean water and that no group is disproportionately targeted and punished by the justice system are goals that Canadians of all political stripes are willing to get behind. It would be unwise for leaders and parliamentarians to become summarily contrarian.
The federal government will still need to deal with issues such as the pandemic and economic recovery. The urban voters who favoured the Liberal Party will undoubtedly await action on housing. Still, the quicker the federal government starts to move on dealing with the pending concerns of First Nations communities, the faster Canadians who became upset with the prime minister’s ill-timed holiday will leave the unpleasantness behind.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from October 4 to October 6, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.