In My Opinion: Canada 150 is an opportunity to improve

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith

Canada Day was full of reasons to celebrate, from the East York Canada Day parade, to the music festival in Woodbine Park, to the many neighbourhood and backyard parties across our community.

I began my morning at an early citizenship ceremony in East York, welcoming 30 new citizens. Their excitement at becoming members of our country was a reminder of how lucky we are to live in Canada.

Yes, we are lucky to live in a peaceful and prosperous democracy that embraces multiculturalism, guarantees individual rights and freedoms through the rule of law, and provides real equality of opportunity through a strong social safety net.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau often says: “We are strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.” Diversity is a source of our strength. It’s incredible to think that 20 per cent of Canadians were born outside of our country, including half of us in the City of Toronto. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said: “A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” Looking around the world today, we certainly don’t need more intolerance.

Of course, moments like Canada Day are not only opportunities to celebrate our success, they are also opportunities to reflect on our history and the country we want to be in the future.

To that end, in the lead up to Canada Day, many constituents wrote to me calling on our government to act quickly to correct the injustices of our historical treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Canadians have good cause to raise this concern. Two years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has said the same, calling our country’s treatment of First Nations “the most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record.”

Today, Indigenous communities continue to face inequities in access to health and education services, as well as serious problems with access to clean water. Poverty rates on reserves are staggering, with over half of First Nations children living in poverty. And more than a quarter of the federal inmate population is Indigenous.

There is no shortcut to reconciliation, but significant work has begun.

Our government has allocated almost $2 billion towards clean water initiatives, and worked to end 18 long-term drinking water advisories since November 2015, but there are still over 80 communities that remain affected. According to Budget 2017, we remain on pace to lift 60 per cent of the remaining advisories within three years, and all by March 2021.

Our government has also allocated billions of dollars to improve housing and other community infrastructure, education and skills training, and health and child welfare services. Additional funding will support programs to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system, the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures.

But implementation is the far harder task, and the devil remains in the details of each initiative. More, as the Parliamentary Budget Office has warned, the success of such announcements will depend on addressing the historical trend of lapsing funding.

Government Bill S-3 aims to address certain gender-based discrimination in the Indian Act, and could lead to as many as 35,000 people becoming entitled to be placed on band lists. While amendments to end additional discrimination in the Act did not pass, despite my vote in support, Bill S-3 requires our government to consult with First Nations about effectively ending all discrimination in the Act, and to report to Parliament within 18 months.

All of this is a good start, but there remains much to be done.

As a shorthand for justice, if we wouldn’t accept it in our own community, we shouldn’t accept it in our Indigenous communities. And there is much in our Indigenous communities we would not accept here in Beaches-East York.

Locally, we have taken small steps to begin a larger conversation. One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action is education for reconciliation. To that end, we enlisted a local Indigenous artist who worked with our youth council to create a banner for the East York Canada Day parade that recognized Indigenous contributions to our country.

In the fall, we will host a Kitchi Blanket Exercise and a town hall discussion focused on reconciliation.

As we celebrate Canada 150, we will use the opportunity to improve intercultural understanding, empathy, and respect.

Most of us are incredibly lucky to live in Canada. But not all of us.

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