In honour of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, RBC held a company-wide event featuring a discussion between panelists committed to advancing truth, reconciliation, education and economic prosperity among Indigenous communities.

September 30, 2022 marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. An opportunity to remember the tragic history of residentials schools – as well as a time to consider the path forward toward both truth and reconciliation – the day is an important moment of reflection and action.

RBC hosted an insightful and profound panel discussion, engaging Indigenous educators in an open conversation about the effects of the past, the steps needed in the present and the hope that may bloom for the future. Moderated by Jeff Boyd, Regional President of Alberta and Territories at RBC, the panel included Kaila Johnston from the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation, Dr. Bob Kayseas, Vice President Academic at First Nations University of Canada and Alanna La Rose, Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Economics and Thought Leadership at RBC. They provided their insights, experiences and perspectives surrounding truth and reconciliation, sharing the challenges that remain and the optimism they are beginning to feel.

Dr. Bob Kayseas, Vice President Academic at First Nations University of Canada

A day of reflection and action

To open the discussion, each of the panelists offered their thoughts on what National Day for Truth and Reconciliation means to them. “For me, it is a day that allows for everybody – not only Indigenous folks but non-Indigenous as well – to get together, contemplate, create relationships and think about what happened in the past that led us to where we are today,” begins Kayseas. He adds that it’s important for everyone to understand that the past is still here in and that Indigenous communities still have a lot of challenges and barriers. “I think that September 30th is a way for us to not only reflect about the past but also see what we can do to help create a better future,” he says.
Alanna La Rose, Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Economics and Thought Leadership at RBC
La Rose added that for her, it’s important to understand the diversity that exists across Indigenous people in Canada. “There are 634 recognized First Nations communities – and many more Inuit and Métis communities spread across vast territories–each is different,” she says. She believes that in order to understand the systemic barriers that still exist today, it’s important to use this day as one of learning and listening. “Today is a day of reflection but actionable next steps as well.”

Kaila Johnston from the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation

Johnston agrees that September 30th is a day of reflection and learning but also a time to recognize the efforts of Survivors and intergenerational Survivors. In acknowledgement of the immense strength and courage it has taken Survivors to share their painful experiences, she shares a quote from Lila Bruyere, a residential school survivor who attended St. Margaret Residential School in Fort Frances, ON, from 1959-1967. “This is a day that honours those voices and recognizes those truths, because years from now, future generations will not have the same opportunities as youth and individuals today to hear directly from Survivors.” Johnston adds that focusing on Survivors is important as we look forward to future generations working collaboratively and cooperatively to ensure a better Canada for everyone.

The role of education in advancing reconciliation

Murray Sinclair has famously said: “Education got us into this mess and education is going to get us out of this. mess.” The panelists agree that education plays a pivotal role in advancing reconciliation and are optimistic about what they’re seeing in classrooms across the country. “What I’ve witnessed brings me hope,” says Johnston. “Students and youth of today are getting to learn about this history and are coming out more aware and more empathetic with a greater understanding of what this history has meant for all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” she says.

While La Rose agrees that progress is being made, she points out that Indigenous youth are still underrepresented in college and university. “How can we move forward and have an integration of Indigenous perspectives if we’re not at the decision-making table?” she asks. While she has seen more businesses and universities take the Call to Action 92 more seriously, she is pressing for full integration across the educational, corporate, public and private spectrums to give Indigenous youth their share of opportunity.

Kayseas speaks to the community at the First Nations University of Canada, which allows for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to enter into an environment where they can gain an education with an understanding of the worldview, history and goals of Indigenous people. He adds that while his own experience was characterized by a lack of awareness and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and places, he is inspired to see his grandchildren coming home from school with assignments on Indigenous culture and language. “I see young people coming home from school with so much awareness already because they’ve taken curriculum in school that gives them an idea of what the history of Canada really is in respect to Indigenous people,” he says. “So there’s a brighter future – these younger people are not going to have the challenges that so many people in my generation had.”

He adds that the 4 Seasons of Reconciliation course, which is a key learning component for RBC employees, is poised to open the door for more awareness. “We’re trying to reach as any Canadians as we can, with a small package, because the commitment is minimal – it’s three and a half hours in a chair – you can do it.”

The impact of statement gathering

Kalia Johnston has spent a great deal of time gathering statements from Survivors and describes her experiences as a way of sharing their challenges and burdens. “We spoke with Survivors and intergenerational Survivors,” she explains, with experiences ranging anywhere from five minutes to ten hours or more. “The big message we heard from many Survivors and intergenerational Survivors is that they want to be listened to – they want to be heard,” says Johnston. “They want their stories shared in classrooms so others can learn about the wide variety of experiences that occurred in residential schools, their healing journeys and some of the challenges and burdens they still have to work through. Even seven years after the close of the Commission, there’s still so much healing that needs to be done,” she says.

When the unmarked graves were discovered in Kamloops last May, Johnston reveals that there was a large uptick of individuals who raised their hand as ready to share. “They weren’t ready during the Truth Commission, they needed to take the time, but now they’re feeling open and willing, so we have started up our statement gathering activities once more. I imagine over the coming years it will be an ongoing activity,” she says, adding that the stories and experiences at unrecognized schools, day schools, Indian hospitals, sanatoriums and other colonial systems have to be collected as well.

Progress and opportunity

It took seven years to do 11 Calls to Action following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Last year, after the Kamloops announcement, three were completed. “While we heard many Survivors talk about unmarked graves, it wasn’t until the news reached the wider, international stage that we saw furious movement,” says Johnston. Since then, there has been more authentic outreach to understand the truths that many Indigenous community members have always known. “I am encouraged to see there are more people who are willing to listen and understand,” says Johnston.

Unfortunately, she adds that residential school denialism has surfaced, which isn’t the denial that residential schools existed, but a denial of the truths that have been shared. “We see a number of different arguments coming through, saying ‘it was a sign of the times’; or ‘they were good people doing good work’ that try to cut the legs out from those who shared their experiences,” says Johnston. “What I can share is that while some individuals may have had a better time at residential school, there was no good coming out of those schools. All of those children were removed from home; all of them were separated or severed from the connection to family and community; and oftentimes, we see a cycle of violence in the schools being replicated in the community, because of the lack of education from their elders on how to property raise a family.”

The intersection of education and economic reconciliation

The Indigenous economy in Canada is currently estimated to be around $32 billion, but its growth is outpacing the overall national economy. In fact, Indigenomics Institute CEO Carol Anne Hilton anticipates its potential at $100B annually within the next five years. Kayseas, who believes that education is an important step to bringing about economic reconciliation, also believes that the corporate sector has a vital role to play.

“One really important step for corporations to consider is to recognize that Indigenous people did not choose to be at the bottom of the rung of these ladders. We didn’t choose economic disparity; we didn’t choose child welfare challenges or to have high representation in prisons. We are now trying to dig our way out of that,” he says, adding that many of the significant barriers to economic prosperity have only recently been lifted.

For instance, it wasn’t until the Indian Act was revised in 1988 that Indigenous people were given the opportunity for economic activity on reserve lands. “Before that, it was actually illegal to put a business on reserve land,” Kayseas says. “The last residential school was closed in 1996. My sister was the first Indigenous person to graduate high school in the town near us – the school had been there for 80 years. So this is all very new and reconciliation is hopefully the way we’re going to get out of this.”

He emphasizes the importance of corporations to create space for Indigenous employees to engage, understand and connect, and to create equitable, long-term opportunities.

Johnston agrees, adding that much needs to be done to make up for the years during which Indigenous communities were put at a disadvantage. “We can start now. Communities are catching up with youth, starting a variety of programs. I’ve seen an influx of Indigenous entrepreneurs as well as programming specifically targeting Indigenous youth to think about entrepreneurship. Any sort of programming that gives indigenous employees equitable access to training and opportunities is a good way to begin to address economic reconciliation.”

How can we help?

Boyd wraps up the discussion with a question to the panelists: “How can we help? What can the folks that are participating in this event today to more of or do differently?”

Johnston recommends that those with children in school look at the materials released during Truth and Reconciliation week, as the Centre is releasing age-appropriate content from grades 1 – 12. She also adds that it’s important to find a Call to Action that resonates. “94 calls to action is a lot. You don’t have to do all 94 – that burden isn’t upon you. But find a call to action that speaks directly to you. What are you passionate about?” She advises researching reading lists, films and training courses that can offer learning and engagement.

Kayseas agrees. “I think it’s important just to keep reading, try to create as much understanding and build relationships to engage with a little more depth.”

La Rose adds that Indigenous allies can lend support. “Don’t make your Indigenous friends or colleagues do the heavy lifting – don’t expect them to educate you. Go look for resources yourself before you come to them with questions. Champion their ideas and their world view,” she says.

On this day of Truth and Reconciliation, it is essential to remember that Truth is one matter and Reconciliation is another. While we take the time to understand and reflect on the truths and traumas of the past, it is also important to transition that awareness into reconciliation into life going forward.

On September 30th, Canadians of all walks of life are encouraged to begin or continue their personal learning journey.

Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.

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