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FILE PHOTO: Haisla chief councillor Ellis Ross with a view in the background of his community and Douglas Channel. Former Haisla First Nation chief and current MLA Ellis Ross says removal of John A. Macdonald statue from Victoria city hall an empty move.

When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported out in 2015, the scale and scope of its findings and recommendations provided a wake-up call to Canadians.

The commission’s final report contained a detailed account of what happened to Indigenous children who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused in government residential schools.

In addition to the shocking scale of abuse in the schools, the report estimated 3,200 children died from tuberculosis, malnutrition and other diseases because of poor living conditions.

But that was a lowball estimate. Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the commission, said up to 6,000 children may have died because deaths and burials were so poorly recorded.

“The truth was hard,” said Sinclair, an Aboriginal lawyer, judge and senator from Manitoba. “Reconciliation will be even harder.”

Three years later, Canadians are discovering just how hard the task can be — especially when reconciliation gestures drive people further apart, instead of bringing them together.

On Aug. 11, a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was removed from the front steps of Victoria City Hall on the orders of Mayor Lisa Helps and a majority of city councillors.

Helps said Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, played a key role in establishing the residential schools in the 1800s, and the statue was “a painful reminder of colonial violence.”

Removal of the statue, Helps said, was a step on the road to reconciliation. But the chair of the reconciliation commission thinks these kind of goodwill gestures can actually backfire.

“The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that it is counterproductive to reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of anger,” Sinclair said.

Now First Nations leaders are speaking out about the futility of tearing down statues, instead of addressing the deeper and more complex challenges facing First Nations.

Ellis Ross, the former chief of the Haisla Nation, said he’s heard many ideas for improving the lives of Indigenous people. Tearing down statues is not one of them.

“Not one person has mentioned this idea to me in 15 years of public office,” said Ross, now a Liberal MLA in the B.C. legislature.

“These types of initiatives have always been a frustration to me. It’s like an empty speech on reconciliation, that does nothing substantive about Native poverty, Native children in government care or Natives in prison.”

Those important issues and many others were addressed in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission , which included 94 “calls to action.”The recommendations included measures to improve health care, education and child welfare for Indigenous communities. There were calls to reform the justice system and to protect First Nations language and cultures. There were calls to improve education programs so all Canadians learn about the history of residential schools.But there is nothing in the report about tearing down statues of Canada’s founders or other divisive historical figures.Instead, there was a call to create new memorials and new works of public art to recognize Indigenous people, their painful history after colonization and their contribution to building the country.“We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process,” the commission recommended.Creating new works of art — instead of tearing down old ones — is a better way to achieve reconciliation, Justice Sinclair said.“We are trying […]

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