Guest Editorial: B.C.s aboriginal minister on creating a future of equality

In order to address what we want the next 150 years to look like, we must learn from the past

By John Rustad, B.C.’s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation

As Canada celebrates 150 years, there are celebrations and ceremonies around British Columbia. But with National Aboriginal Day held June 21, it is also right that we take a moment to recognize that, for many aboriginal people, Canada 150 is a complex and sensitive anniversary.

In order to address what we want the next 150 years to look like, we must learn from the lessons of the past to ensure our children understand the devastation of colonial policies on aboriginal language and culture, and the way the residential school system created inter-generational trauma that still reverberates through communities today.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action are a road map that can help us to acknowledge the past and close the disparities that were created in our society. For decades, aboriginal people have struggled to regain the rights that were lost due to colonization. It was 1982 when aboriginal people in Canada had their existing aboriginal and treaty rights recognized under the Constitution Act.

Education drives social change and gives people choices about their future. Aboriginal history, culture and perspectives are now woven into B.C.’s new kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. It is a work in progress but a step in the right direction and B.C. Aboriginal students’ high school completion rate has increased from 39 to 63 per cent in the last 15 years.

It is also vital that we build an education environment where aboriginal youth feel welcome and supported, which is why all B.C. public post-secondary institutions now have aboriginal gathering places to engender a sense of community and belonging to aboriginal students. Access to trades training is also in great demand and more than 2,500 aboriginal people have participated in training through programs supported by the Aboriginal Skills Training Development Fund since it was launched in 2015.

Access to education is also one of the key social determinants of health and we have been working with the First Nations Health Council on how to continue closing the gaps on education, public safety, child and family welfare and public health, so that we can improve all these key outcomes for Aboriginal people in B.C. In April of this year, we also signed a reconciliation charter with the First Nations Leadership Council and the federal government to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and families and reduce the number of children coming into care.

We have been working with aboriginal people to create the right economic conditions where communities can succeed and businesses thrive. There are more than 1,200 aboriginal-owned companies in B.C. that are creating local training and employment opportunities. Aboriginal businesses are involved in the development of more than 60 proposed major projects across a diverse range of sectors in B.C. There are more than 300 aboriginal tourism companies in B.C., which represent approximately 20 per cent of aboriginal tourism in Canada. The province and First Nations have also achieved more than 500 economic and reconciliation agreements, and more than 400 of these agreements have been reached in the past five years.

Aboriginal leaders have been pushing government to address social and economic issues and rightly so. We shouldn’t shy away from the hard questions aboriginal leaders and communities are asking: Questions about rights and title, reconciling our respective jurisdictions, and the implications of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Debate on these issues is important. It makes our relationships more open and stronger.

Chief Robert Joseph, co-founder of Reconciliation Canada, says that “our future, and the well-being of all our children rests with the kind of relationships we build today.” Relationships are about dialogue. It is a two-way process and I believe that a day like National Aboriginal Day sharpens our focus and creates conversations around identity—around who we are and who we want to be.

It is about moving to a future of expanding partnerships, recognition of rights, and most importantly, shared prosperity. It is about fostering awareness, crossing a historic divide and diminishing persistent attitudes of racism and superiority. With these things in mind, we must all work collaboratively and respectfully with aboriginal people to deliver a better future.

I ask that we all consider our role and responsibility as individuals, as British Columbians and as Canadians, to recognize the legacy of the past and to create a future where equality is the norm, not just an aspiration.