Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 20 Years Later: Katherine Graham on the Carleton University campus in Ottawa

The Way Forward: 20 Years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

By Susan Hickman

It’s time for Indigenous people to articulate their own visions for a new relationship with the Canadian government and the Canadian people, says Katherine Graham, Carleton University professor emerita at the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA).

Graham, whose research interests concern Indigenous and northern development policy, attended a national public forum in Winnipeg from Nov. 2 to 4 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP).

Indigenous groups are developing new proposals to present to all levels of government, reflecting their current concept of nation-to-nation and nation-to-Crown relationships, says Graham.
It’s one of the important messages that came out of the forum, “Sharing the Land, Sharing a Future,” which attracted some 200 leaders of national Indigenous organizations, community groups, students, academics and government representatives.

Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, also spoke at the conference about the need to develop new sustainable institutional relationships in education and infrastructure as opposed to limited programs.

There was also a strong view among conference participants, Graham adds, that education is key to developing a more accurate history of Canada that incorporates the role and culture of Indigenous peoples in the national narrative, “so that it becomes part of the DNA.”

The Winnipeg event, says Graham, went beyond the typical academic exercise. Papers were presented by university professors from across Canada, including Carleton, as well as by such stakeholders as Mark Dockstator, president of the First Nations University of Canada, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health and Wellness, Yvonne Boyer, and members of the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (CANDO).

“But we also held roll-up-the-sleeves sessions where participants were asked to identify recommendations for moving forward,” Graham adds.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: What has changed since 1996?

Carleton SPPA Prof. Frances Abele co-authored a paper for the conference that considered what has changed in Indigenous-Canadian relations since 1996 and discussed the ways to forge a new relationship. Three Carleton SPPA graduates also attended.

While there was a high level of sophistication when the RCAP took place in 1996, explains Graham: “Now there is an even greater level of sophistication and capacity in Indigenous communities and political organizations. They are getting stronger and that’s very constructive.”

Many of the nearly 100 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which released its final report a year ago, have some roots in the RCAP, says Graham. “It wasn’t put on a shelf. But now we want to re-examine some of the recommendations and see to what extent they are still relevant. We can’t afford to let the TRC report end up in the delete bin.”

The results of the massive undertaking of the RCAP, which involved five years of research, testimony, consultation and deliberation, were largely written off. And yet it is essential, she says, that the legacies of the RCAP and the TRC be recognized and that all Canadians determine how to live well together.

“RCAP still comprises the most extensive and ethically based research program aimed at better understanding the history and lived experience of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.”

Looking ahead, Graham remains “cautiously optimistic,” largely due to the emerging of a reconciliation agenda for a nation-to-nation relationship thought too radical two decades ago, but she’s aware of the challenges of the different history and aspirations of the Indigenous peoples.

“Today, a nation-to-nation relationship is common parlance and the Library and Archives Canada will be releasing the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples research to the public this year. It is a treasure trove of information for anyone who is interested in the history of relations between Indigenous peoples and newcomers.”