Madam Speaker, it is my honour to be speaking virtually from Toronto, but in the House of Commons, on Bill C-5. This is an important piece of legislation on the path to reconciliation, which I firmly believe will help in shaping a better future.
I want to note, first of all, that when I speak from my riding of Parkdale—High Park, I am located on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat, the Anishinabe and, most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit. I would also like to say meegwetch, which means “thank you” in Algonquin, for giving me the chance to speak before the chamber on this important topic, acknowledging that the parliamentary precinct where you are, Madam Speaker, is on unceded Algonquin territory.
Before beginning, I also want to acknowledge the important work done on this initiative by former NDP member of Parliament, Georgina Jolibois, who presented this bill in the 42nd Parliament. At that time, during debate, she said:
This bill will not solve the housing crisis indigenous people live through and it will not fix the overrepresentation of indigenous children in foster care and it will not close the education gap that leaves indigenous children behind.
However, it will give Canadians the opportunity to fully understand why those problems exist.
That is a very succinct and sound analysis of the situation and also of the importance of the bill. I thank her for her advocacy during the 42nd Parliament.
We have heard during debate on this bill about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the TRC. We know it released its final report in 2015 and that the Liberal government under the Prime Minister accepted the conclusions of the TRC. This in-depth study of Canada's history was mainly looking at the legacy of the residential school system. There were 94 calls to action, of which we have heard about many. Bill C-5 will address, in particular, call to action number 80, which states:
Bill C-5 will address, in particular, call to action number 80, which states:
We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.
The relationship with indigenous peoples is a critical one and the implementation of this call to action is one step forward toward that reconciliation. Clearly, there is a long way to go, and we have heard about that from many speakers on this bill today and last week. Canada, indeed, has a poor history and track record when it comes to its relationship with indigenous persons. In a debate like the one we are having today, it is important to acknowledge mistakes from the past in order to build forward better.
We are all now well aware of the atrocities that happened in residential schools and their consequences, and I will touch on the point of education a little later. We are aware generally of the intergenerational impacts on survivors and their families. We are also aware of the consequences of the sixties scoop that took so many indigenous kids away from their families. Finally, we are aware of the ongoing systemic racism and discrimination that is still happening in Canada. We saw the heartbreaking video published by Joyce Echaquan during the last minutes of her life, mentioned by the previous speakers of the Bloc Québécois.
We know about the systemic racism being faced by Mi'kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia as we speak, fishers who dared to exercise their treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood, as upheld in two Supreme Court decisions in the Marshall case 21 years earlier. The violence we have seen in Nova Scotia is never acceptable, and the systemic racism we have witnessed in Nova Scotia must be eliminated via leadership on the part of all parties, including law enforcement in Nova Scotia. That is why we need to move forward with all of the calls to action from the TRC. However, I want to focus now on call to action 80 and urge my colleagues to support this piece of legislation.
This piece of legislation talks about September 30 and we have heard about this in the context of Orange Shirt Day, the current moniker for September 30. Established in 2013, Orange Shirt Day helps raise awareness about the long-lasting impacts of residential schools and honours the resilience and courage of survivors, while focusing on the experiences of students at residential schools and, indeed, those who did not survive.
This day is based on the heartbreaking story of Phyllis Webstad, which remained, unfortunately, unknown to many Canadians. For those who are not aware of it, Phyllis was sent to the Mission school out west in 1973. Even though her family did not have a lot of money, her grandmother bought her a brand new outfit before she had to leave for her first day of school. Part of that outfit was a shiny new orange shirt. Her joy at attending school at the tender age of six did not last very long. When she arrived at the school, the authorities took away all of her possessions, including her clothes, and that brand new orange shirt was never returned.
I had the opportunity to meet Phyllis Webstad in the government lobby during the last Parliament and she talked to me about her story.
She also provided me with a copy of her book and inscribed it for my children, who at the time were about three and seven. They are now nine and six. What I have done since that time is read my kids that story periodically and educate them about this very basic concept. During this pandemic I can say that the anticipation my children had of returning to school was very high, but the notion of them being prevented from wearing something that I or my wife might have purchased for them really hit home as a visceral example of the injustice and unfairness of the residential school system.
I am glad my kids are learning about this, but the point is not just about Phyllis's book or my children. It is about all children and all of us, as Canadians, learning about this important story. We know that Phyllis, at the age of 27, started a healing journey. Since then she has been able to share her story, but that story needs to be shared widely. We also have to think about the unshared stories of those who did not come out of that Mission school, who never returned from residential school, or who never found their voice or had the courage to tell it the way Phyllis has. That is why this is such an important initiative.
I want to acknowledge that there are those who push the envelope on the part of reconciliation and indigenous awareness all the time. I am proud to call many of those my constituents in Parkdale—High Park. There are many people who are actively engaged at a local level, community by community, around this country with reconciliation. People speak to me about the pace of reconciliation and how it needs to be hastened. People in my riding speak to me about the legacy of residential schools. I have been heartened by the fact children at a very tender age in my riding are already learning about this in their classrooms. This is critical, because it is not learning I ever received in the 1970s or 1980s as a young student here in Toronto.
I am also heartened by the fact that people are aware of the territory we are on, here in Toronto; of the naming of streets, and how that was occasioned in places in and around High Park; of blanket exercises, and even of such things as the magnificent indigenous murals and art that decorate parts of my riding, including the beautiful mural by Philip Cote at the corner of Roncesvalles Avenue and Garden Avenue. While there are those who are aware in my community, throughout the city and throughout this country, there are still far too many people who are unaware. That is what this bill clearly seeks to address.
Let me talk a bit about education at this point.
To move forward on the path to reconciliation, it is imperative that we continue to educate our society on the issues facing first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. As a government, we have a duty to ensure that Canadians are aware of the difficult history of indigenous peoples and the consequences of the trauma they have experienced. Statistics show that around half of Canadians have little to no knowledge of the residential schools and their impact.
That is why it is so important to create a national day for truth and reconciliation. By creating this day, we will help increase general knowledge about the first peoples and their history. These conversations need to take place, at home, among friends and among colleagues, to raise awareness about reconciliation.
I want to talk about my own education. I alluded to my own experience at elementary school as a young boy here in Toronto. I practised law prior to becoming a parliamentarian and did so for 15 years. I practised constitutional law. Obviously, that means I was at law school and then was engaged in practice.
While at law school I learned very little, almost nothing, about the residential school system. During my practice, I did not touch this area of law. It was generally understood at the time that aboriginal law, as it was then known, was quite complicated, complex and usually quite desperate in terms of leaving one feeling despondent that nothing was going to improve.
Upon entering life as a parliamentarian in 2017, I had the occasion of serving as the parliamentary secretary to the then minister of heritage, who at the time was charged with working with first nations, Inuit and Métis individuals to co-develop language protection legislation. She turned to me and asked if I would help her in this work. Originally, I was puzzled as to why the ask was put in and what I could contribute, but that ask has been quite pivotal to my understanding of this issue, my understanding of the broader cause of reconciliation, and my maturation as a parliamentarian.
What I learned as I led those consultations around the country, from coast to coast to coast, meeting with teachers, elders, academics, leaders, pupils and chiefs from first nations, Inuit and Métis communities, is how critical language is as a feature of reconciliation, and how critical it is to work on initiatives like this in a co-development model.
One study resonated with me, and I will repeat it now. We learned in British Columbia that those groups who have knowledge of their mother tongue, their own indigenous language, have a suicide rate six times lower than the provincial average. When the language was removed, it removed people's connection to their people, to their culture and their community. Suicide rates elevated sixfold, far outstripping the provincial average for non-indigenous people. That told me there is a clear link between restoring people's language and people's connection to their culture, their sense of self-esteem, their confidence and, indeed, suicidality rates. It is not far-fetched or hyperbole to say that these are literally life-and-death matters for indigenous people. This bill is more symbolic in nature, but it touches upon the same concept that we need to learn about history in the context of language. Residential schools contributed to erasing that language.
I raise the issue because the question has come up, in the context of this debate, of whether enough work is being done. Clearly, more work needs to be done, but I would say that passing the Indigenous Languages Act, passing child welfare legislation and eliminating over 80 boil water advisories are steps in the right direction.
Does more need to be done? Absolutely: not one of the 338 members of the House would dispute that. However, it is unfair to say that work has not been done since 2015.
I will say that Bill C-5, talks about call to action no. 80. In this bill, we recognize that indigenous people continue to face ongoing discrimination, as I mentioned at the very outset. Systemic racism continues to be a reality. We know that, in the past, indigenous communities have gone out on the streets to express their frustration and their desire for change. I am glad to see now that the rest of society is catching up: slowly, but it is catching up. We see solidarity with indigenous people voicing concerns about the Mi'kmaq and solidarity with indigenous persons voicing concerns about Joyce Echaquan. Non-indigenous people are awakening, and that is a good sign. The fact that parliamentarians are awakening is a critical sign and a necessary one. That solidarity is what this bill endeavours not just to capture but also to promote.
Bill C-5 is in line with some of our government's previous actions, such as an announcement in budget 2019 to provide $7 million, over two years, to communities across the country to commemorate the history and legacy of residential schools. By taking this step forward, we keep raising awareness across Canada of the trauma indigenous people have undergone and the intergenerational impacts of such trauma.
It is important that we recognize that it is not just about learning this history on one day, on September 30, but each and every day: that we think about it in terms of the practical work that we do as parliamentarians and, indeed, how we live our lives day to day as Canadians.
It is a common responsibility and a duty to remember this dark chapter in Canadian history and to ensure a better future for all people in this country. We owe it to indigenous peoples on this land. We owe it to the survivors of the residential school system. We owe it to those who never returned from the residential school system. We owe it to the parents from whom children were taken. We owe it also to the generations to come.
Having an open conversation about residential schools and the legacy of racism and colonialism, and the hardship and pain and violence that were endured, is difficult. It is painful. It is uncomfortable. However, we recognize that this is nothing compared with the actual experiences lived by indigenous people who went through these schools.
We are committed to doing what is right with respect to Bill C-5, even though that is not an easy path. I hope all members, in a strong spirit of non-partisanship, will support this bill and recognize its importance, so that September 30, 2021, can be the first national day for truth and reconciliation in Canada. Learning our history and moving forward should never be an issue that divides on party lines.