Truth, Reconciliation And A New Opportunity

September 30, 2021 marks the first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in honour of the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.

My name is Leor Rotchild. I’m one of the newest Directors on the Crescent Heights Community Association and in my day job, I’m Executive Director of a national association called Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR).

I’m writing this from Moh’kins’tsis, the Blackfoot name for the place we commonly know as Calgary, which is located in the Treaty 7 region and traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina, the Stoney Nakoda and the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.

When I was asked to write something to you about Truth and Reconciliation, I had some hesitation because I’m not Indigenous and I’m still learning (and unlearning) a lot on this topic. What could I say that someone with lived experience couldn’t say with much more eloquence and credibility?

I decided it was important to add my voice because this topic shouldn’t only be Indigenous peoples speaking to Indigenous peoples. Of course Indigenous voices are extremely important. I couldn’t possibly be writing about this topic if it were not for the amazingly courageous work of leaders like Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Eriel Deranger, JP Gladu, Tim Fox, Laurie Buffalo, Michelle Robinson, Annie Korver, and others that I look up to and try to learn from.

I see Truth and Reconciliation not just as an acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of this land and the horrors of the past, but also as an opportunity to talk about the possibility of building a modern society and economy of the future. However, we cannot move forward toward this new economy unless we co-create it together and we cannot begin that process until we are ready to face the ugliness of what went wrong in the past and how it is still affecting people today.

As a descendent of Holocaust survivors myself, I have some sense of how trauma can last multiple generations but the genocide my family narrowly escaped is widely acknowled and German society educates its population about the horrors of its past. Why doesn’t Canada? Why didn’t I learn about child separations and Residential schools during my privileged education? Atrocities have taken place in the name of assimilation and it’s a shameful but significant part of Canada’s story, which shapes the context of where we find ourselves today. Acknowledging this Truth will help us go beyond where we are, toward where we need to go next.

If you’ve been following pipeline politics in western North America, as many Albertans have, then you probably already know that our economy is intricately tied to Truth and Reconciliation. Unfortunately, our media does us a disservice to portray Indigenous communities as “anti-development”. Indigenous Peoples are not standing in the way of the economy. More often than not, they are being excluded from the economy. Despite that, the Indigenous Economy is contributing an estimated $32 Billion to the Canadian economy annually.

As the fastest growing population in the country, that number could be easily tripled. The Indigenomics Institute has done some terrific work to identify the gaps that could be removed to unlock the $100 billion Indigenous economy. Doing this in turn will help grow the Alberta and Canadian economy.

There are some interesting examples coming from the business sector that I’d like to highlight. CBSR member companies like Cenovus Energy are investing $50 million into affordable housing in Indigenous communities because that’s what those communities told them was the greatest barrier to actively contributing to the economy. After learning some hard lessons about the wrong way to secure local support, Enbridge has set some bold diversity and inclusion targets across their workforce, senior leadership, board, supply chains. And achieving these targets are tied to executive compensation.  We need hundreds, thousands more examples like this.

Obviously these examples are the right thing to do but if you ask leaders in those companies what’s driving these decisions, they will tell you it’s now key to attracting global investments into their business.

If you are following how capital markets are rapidly changing, then you know that issues like how companies manage climate risk and inequality now show up as material for investment decisions, at the same level of importance as revenue projections and cost management.

Some of this was driven by large institutional investors like Blackrock and their CEO Larry Fink who has been increasingly harsh in his annual open letter to Fortune 500 CEOs who wish to access the company’s $9 trillion of investments. In his letters he writes that if you can’t demonstrate how your company is innovating to achieve net zero emissions as well as making society better, not through donations but through your core business, then we’re going to move our money where it can do the most good.

In response, companies are rethinking their business models and “indigenizing” their supply chains. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business provides a best practice certification known as Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) for companies committed to growing their commitment to Indigenous businesses suppliers and contractors as well as setting diversity and inclusion goals.

All the progress being made to include Indigenous peoples in the future economy is positive but we have to be open to different ideas of what that future looks like based on traditional knowledge and teachings. The progress being made on the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Report and National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are painfully slow and there is so much work left to be done so that Indigenous peoples can enjoy the same level of health, education, financial services, and social assistance that most Canadians take for granted. I have been surprised to learn that 61 Indigenous communities still don’t have clean drinking water, and the fact that First Nations people living on Reserves have no property rights whatsoever.   

Recognizing a day to reflect and redouble our efforts to make things right makes sense to me. Especially in 2021, when the bodies of more than 1,300 children were uncovered in unmarked graves at Residential school sites. It is estimated that thousands more will be discovered, each time serving as another painful reminder about the genocide that was committed and the scars that many Survivors, families and communities still carry.

I was reminded by my friend Annie recently that Reconciliation is not an end point. It’s simply the road map to move us forward toward a future built on shared values. She also reminded me that starting with how we manoeuvre through this complex journey together is the wrong place to start. We need to start with why. We need to have, as she puts it, a “hand to heart” honest and genuine connection with people and seek to listen, understand, and allow for dignity so that people can heal. Acknowledging that a genocide took place is helpful to people.

For me the answer to why is my daughter. I want her to know the cultures she inherits, the Holocaust survival history of her ancestors, the story of the land they immigrated from and the full story of the land they came to and the oppression that was and is still felt here today. This journey is a long one and I believe she and her generation will play a role within it.

Rebuilding our economy, province and our country beyond this pandemic will be a monumental task and unleashing the emerging Indigenous economy in that process will help but it will be meaningless if we don’t also take the time to restore our soul and make things right in the process. The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a good time to reflect on that.