Sharing the Land, Sharing the Future: The Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples | Reconciling Truths: Reimagining Public Inquiries in Canada
Review By Andrew Nurse
June 27, 2023
Do public inquires accomplish anything? As it pertains to First Peoples, this question has become more and more important. Indeed, one might argue that we live in a time of inquiries, commissions, investigations, reports, working groups, and a host of other institutions that study issues and, as Kim Stanton’s Reconciling Truths and Katherine Graham and David Newhouse’s edited volume Sharing the Land, Sharing the Future indicate, make often important calls for change. What is the result? The short answer is that it depends who answers that question. Stanton’s volume and the Graham and Newhouse collection answer this question differently and in different ways. For my money, the Graham and Newhouse text does a better job.
Stanton’s Reconciling Truths is a scholarly monograph. Its 211 pages of text are divided into five substantive chapters that begins with an exploration of the history and nature of public inquiries in Canada. This is followed by chapters on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, residential schools, truth and reconciliation, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Reconciling Truths’ thorough documentation adds 85 pages to its total. In it, the author seeks to provide a specific answer: yes. Public inquires can be an effective engine for policy change if a series of factors are in place. They need to be chaired by the right people, properly resourced, responsive to the communities they study, and transparent in their operations with well-designed communications strategies.
Sharing the Land is a much bigger book. It originated in a 2016 forum held to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and assess its legacies. Its text and documentation run to 475 pages. Its size is a product of both its objective and the range of voices interested in speaking to this subject. Its twenty-one chapters are complemented by a forward, introduction, and conclusion. They represent the work of forty-four authors, but Sharing the Land also challenges standard conceptions of authorship. Most of its chapters are co-authored and some listed authors are collective bodies, such as networks or communities. It also makes use of a range of different modes of writing that includes addresses, critical scholarly articles, and a speculative think-piece. Its authors include scholars and political figures and activists, including the RCAP co-chairs. Because of this diversity of perspectives, its conclusions are almost necessarily far more ambiguous. The best we might be able to say is that RCAP’s legacies are controversial and multiple. The Conclusion suggests that positive changes in Canada’s relationship with First Peoples have occurred since RCAP’s final report was released in 1996 but other chapters (such as Salée and Lévesque’s remarkably effective “Canada’s Aboriginal Policy and the Politics of Ambivalence”) suggests that RCAP’s legacies can be seen in far darker ways. And, as more than one contribution suggests, much of what was in RCAP was repeated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action released nearly twenty years later.
What is important about these books – and what Sharing the Land more overtly recognizes – is that they are about something other than their specific subjects of study. By implication or intention both texts also contribute to a growing literature that asks if the political-economic institutions of a neo-liberal Canada can make a space for a positive and productive relationship with First Peoples. The narrative of progressive change that is in at least part of both texts suggests that it can, but I will confess that I am more skeptical. Let me try to be clear about my perspective. I am not saying that inquiries of various sorts cannot be useful, and I fully understand why they are often seen as a needed mechanism to address the racism and violence embedded in colonial society. As I watch the horrified victims of white Settler racism on my TV, I understand why they, their families, and communities want inquiries. They want the racism to stop, solutions to their problems, and “reconciliation,” whatever that term might mean. In my part of the country, they want an end to Settler violence against First Peoples exercising Supreme Court recognized treaty rights. The problem with inquires is not the people calling for them. The problem, Stanton implicitly implies and chapters in Graham and Newhouse make clear, is that inquires are themselves part of the evolving relationship between Canadians and First Peoples as opposed to potential mechanisms of change.
What do I mean? I mean this: Kim Stanton has written a good book. They have made the best case for liberal democratic public inquires that one can make. And, yet, by their own accounting a whole bunch of things have to go right for an inquiry to be effective. Does the history of colonialism in Canada give us any expectation that that will happen on a regular basis? Moreover, even when inquiries work well – are run by competent people, are properly resourced, and don’t fall prey to political machinations – there is precious little guarantee that governments will act on their recommendations. RCAP may be the key case in point. Almost all of its key recommendations were simply ignored to the point that they needed to be repeated by the TRC.
What these texts show us, then, is something we already knew but which bears emphasis: a new and fair relationship between First Peoples and the neo-liberal order of contemporary Canada can only emerge through an unusual effort. Instead of that new relationship, what has happened is that First Peoples have become increasingly entangled in the institutional matrix of the neo-liberal Canadian state. What are the characteristics of this order? The appreciable merit of these texts is that they provide precisely this information. It includes failed inquiries or those whose recommendations are ignored, a bewildering array of policies, acronyms, and programs that link First Peoples to the state while (I suspect) absorb time, energy and community resources, hypocrisy (Cindy Blackstock’s “What Will It Take” in Newhouse and Graham is particularly illustrative here), and almost Orwellian double-talk (I’ll again refer to Salée and Lévesque).
Sharing the Land also shows us something else that I am not certain how to address but which I feel would be dishonest to ignore. It relates to the appropriation of Indigenous identity that has been very much in the news and, specifically, to Carrie Bourassa’s co-authored piece on “Cultural Safety.” The bio provided with this collection is dated but, importantly, does not repeat Bourassa’s false claims to Indigenous identity and ancestry. Nor, however, does it acknowledge the irony that an essay on “cultural safety” was co-authored by a person who appropriated Indigenous identity and I don’t really know what to say about that. I’d argue that a review is not the place to have this kind of important conversation and I may not be the right person to be a participant in it. I do think that we can’t ignore it. I say this because I am glad to have read Sharing the Land and am grateful for the work that went into it. I’ll certainly be assigning chapters to my classes next year. But I’ll also have to field questions about Bourassa, her inclusion, and the ironies associated with her work. My plan to address those questions is to recommend my students listen to a Pam Palmater/Kim TallBear podcast but I would have liked to know what others – say, those who contributed to this volume – think of the matter.
Graham, Katherine A.H. and David Newhouse (eds.) Sharing the Land, Sharing the Future: The Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021. 512 pp. $31.95 paper.
Stanton, Kim. Reconciling Truths: Reimagining Public Inquiries in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2022. 340 pp. $34.95 paper.