An Open Letter on Reconciliation in Canada, from a federal public service worker

PSAC BC was copied on this letter to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Members written by Megan Adam, the President of UHEW Local 20147, which we are sharing with her permission.

June 7 2021, an open letter to:

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister
Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services
Carolyn Bennet, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada
Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard

In recognition of National Indigenous History Month I am writing to express my disappointment at the Government of Canada’s handling of reconciliation efforts in this country over the past several years.

In 2015 when this government was elected, I thought perhaps we might see more than apologies to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people in this country.

I was hopeful that this government would finally take on reconciliation as a series of actions to address harm done to Indigenous peoples and their communities. But six years in, and it appears that many Government promises have been forgotten or ignored entirely: 

  • Clean drinking water is still an issue in more than 100 Indigenous communities such as Grassy Narrows, where 90% of the people have signs of mercury poisoning due to chemical dumping in their freshwater system.
  • On-reserve housing, a responsibility of the federal government, continues to be substandard and in short supply. Housing is a crisis across this country, but most Canadians would be shocked to realize the extent of mould, leaking roofs, and toxic building materials found in reserve housing.
  • No federal money has been set aside for a forensic search of former residential school sites, despite requests by the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to do so. This may have been a decision by the former government, but it’s something the current government could take up now, particularly in light of the Kamloops discovery.
  • The federal government continues litigation against the claims of Residential School survivors, and continues to deny responsibility for the legacy of cultural and individual harm created by government policy and inaction over generations.

These are just some of the long-standing issues that stand in the way of reconciliation. Of course, long-standing problems can’t be changed overnight, but since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report we seem to have retreated into platitudes over concrete action. Only ten of the TRC’s 97 calls to action have been met in six years.

As a career public servant, I know what it looks like when “all hands are on deck” to solve a problem. Covid-19, for example, spurred the farthest-reaching mobilization of the federal civil service in my lifetime. While I am proud of the work we did over a difficult year, I can only reflect that we have not seen even a fraction of this mobilization around reconciliation.

Even promises to ensure education inside the public service have been poorly met with elective (non-mandatory) training. We do not screen for Indigenous awareness as part of our staffing, nor do we receive training on de-colonizing policy and processes. We have not seriously undertaken the work of equalizing the relationship between Indigenous and settler governments, nor set an intention to do so.

Over the course of my 22-year career I have been a union representative and am currently local president for UHEW 20147 which represents approximately 700 individuals employed at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in BC.

In the course of my career as a representative, I have heard from many Indigenous members about internal discrimination with regards to staffing, systemic racism they witness in the course of their work, and racist language and attitudes in the workplace.

While I believe we are doing better than we were twenty years ago, leadership is often lacking, and workers in the field find themselves caught in between differing priorities without a clear path that honours high-level commitments.

We hear all the right messages from management, and yet when it comes to harassment, bullying, and exclusion, individuals frequently don’t feel safe in mediated processes and feel that to be heard, they must pursue grievances and other formal complaints processes.

Reconciliation is not the responsibility of Indigenous people in this country. They did not willingly enter into this relationship. As a settler Canadian and a public service worker, reconciliation is my responsibility.

This is why I am writing this letter asking that public service workers be given the tools to work on reconciliation with Indigenous people inside our workplace and in our communities.

And by this I mean that we need enough funding to carry out the calls to action by the TRC, we need real internal culture change at the field level (not just in Ottawa HQ), and we need to approach every single policy and process with the intention of de-colonizing our relationships with Indigenous governments.

We don’t need another committee, inquiry, or government report. Between the Royal Commission of 1996, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, we have plenty of concrete actions before us.

Let’s treat this like the national crisis that it is and renew our efforts to address the historic and ongoing harm perpetrated on Indigenous communities in Canada.  

Respectfully, Megan Adam
President, UHEW 20147 (PSAC)