How Public Servants Can Better Serve Indigenous Communities
While various federal government departments have released action plans on reconciliation in time for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, they lack focus on the structural change required.
By Isabel Diavolitsis and Imani Thomas
Photo Source: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada
SEPTEMBER 30th MARKS the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. People across the country will be encouraged to take the day to educate themselves on Indigenous history, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and wear an orange shirt to raise awareness of the legacy of residential schools. Public servants will no doubt be encouraged to do the same by their departments; however, their relationship with reconciliation should not look the same as that of the average Canadian. Our civil service is the body directly responsible for redefining the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous Peoples in Canada. As such, their reconciliation journey cannot be solely focused on education and awareness – it must be centred on the rethinking of policy design and service delivery.
Prior to implementing changes in government to address historical and current injustices, it is indeed crucial that public servants understand past and current effects of colonial policies on Indigenous Peoples. Enacted in 1876, the Indian Act has served as the federal government’s main vehicle to govern its relationship with First Nations in Canada. If you have not already, read Bob Joseph’s article 21 Things You May Not Have Known About the Indian Act or, better yet, buy his book – both provide a succinct overview of how the Canadian government attempted to forcibly assimilate Indigenous Peoples to advance its aims of settler colonialism. A key policy of the Indian Act, and the focus of September 30th, is the residential school system, a government program designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and which saw the death or disappearance of 6,000 of the 150,000 children who attended the schools between the 1870s and 1996.
Other features of the Act included land dispossession (the federal government gave itself the right to lease “unused” reserve land to non-Indigenous people), disenfranchisement (status Indians did not have the right to vote until 1960) and the prohibition of cultural ceremonies. These disruptive policies, amongst others under the Indian Act, have contributed to current cycles of poverty, drastic differences in health (compared to non-Indigenous Canadians) and continued challenges in exercising self-governance experienced by Indigenous communities today. Governments across party lines and at the federal, provincial and municipal levels have worked with Indigenous communities to address these challenges through modern treaty negotiations, billions of dollars in healthcare spending and adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While these seek to redress the fallout of previous approaches to Indigenous relations, many government action plans lack a policy by policy, bureaucrat by bureaucrat perspective on reconciliation. What does it mean for the public servant?
Various federal government departments have already published their reconciliation action plans; however, they fall short of incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge into policymaking. For example, the Global Affairs Canada Action Plan on Reconciliation seeks to foster inclusive and representative workspaces, increase employee knowledge on Indigenous rights, histories, and cultures, deepen partnerships with Indigenous nations and improve economic opportunities and data collection. The wider Government of Canada principles concerning its relationship with Indigenous Peoples cover similar ground, making reference to the demands of reconciliation, self-governance and going beyond free, prior and informed consent. These principles acknowledge and respect the right to self-determination for Indigenous nations and the mutual responsibilities of governments to shift relationships accordingly. Most importantly, the principles concur that changes must be made to governmental structures and processes.
Theoretically, Canadian public service employees should have some background and understanding of reconciliation, but there remain items missing from the discussion and layers of complexity to add. As stakeholders in public policy, we should question what it means to engage with Indigenous Peoples not just from a cultural diplomacy or inclusion perspective. We must move away from performative, dismissive, and/or discriminatory policymaking. We should not burden Indigenous public servants with providing an “Indigenous perspective” on decisions, especially when there are so few Indigenous public servants at senior levels where decisions are made and resources allocated. Indigenous expertise and ways of knowing related to negotiation, leadership, climate action, trade and more can also become the basis of new, reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships domestically and internationally. The federal government has acknowledged the significance of this point of view; however, frameworks such as the Indigenous Knowledge Policy Framework for Proposed Project Reviews and Regulatory Decisions are not binding. The implementation approach for this framework was unclear and in addition, there is no requirement for public servants to apply it in policy design. In the words of Anishinaabe scholar Sheryl Lightfoot, without action, these once again become instances of beautiful rhetoric masking a lack of substantive change.
To achieve the transformational change of Indigenous relationships with Canada, we must imagine new ways to be with Indigenous Peoples – neither forcing them to work within a Canadian colonial system nor completely overhauling the existing Canadian system are options. Perhaps we must instead turn to indigenizing processes, starting with engaging with Indigenous Peoples on a nation-to-nation basis. For example, Haudenosaunee Peoples have been practicing self-determination through the creation and consistent use of Haudenosaunee Six Nation passports as an assertion of being neither Canadian nor American. The passports continue to be a source of resistance and proof of decolonized and plural sovereignty, without creating or continuing a discriminatory two-class system of autonomy in comparison to the rest of Canada. Another example of indigenizing processes is incorporating the data governance principles of OCAP (First Nations principles of ownership, control, access and possession) into research and consultation efforts with First Nations communities. These examples and others make it clear that possibilities of self-government exist; it is now time to imagine plural and innovative arrangements for the future to respect Indigenous rights as outlined in UNDRIP and to push further for structural changes.
Canada is and has been at a crossroads of choice – do we want to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into our systems or are we satisfied with merely acknowledging its existence? We have to move past the point of awareness – the public’s knowledge of Indigenous issues has steadily been increasing, as has discourse around Indigenous ways of knowing, self-governance and unique needs, rights and cultures. Indigenous peoples have been calling for us to look to the future, imagining new ways of relating, all while continuing to reconcile with their own histories, traumas and communities. When it comes to engaging Indigenous stakeholders and reconciliation within the public service, it is time to move from politically correct posturing to meaningful policy action – let’s do more and say less.
Note from the authors:
In writing this piece together as non-Indigenous Canadians settled on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehà:ka, we would like to acknowledge our positionalities in a discussion on reconciliation. We are both women, one of us is Black and the other white, and we are in higher education at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. Thus, we recognize and commit to understanding our own privileges while seeking to bring together existing Indigenous scholarship and advocacy to inform this article on the need for reconciliation beyond simple reflection for public servants.
Isabel Diavolitsis is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. She is interested in existing policy frameworks and how to promote societal change within them by creating and maintaining space for marginalized voices.
Imani Thomas is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. She has an interest in public service transformation and applying principles of behavioural economics and user experience design to the policymaking process.
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