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Former Supreme Court justice discusses paths to reconciliation

Establishing a new relationship with indigenous peoples is the “most important societal issue” facing the country.

BY ANQI SHEN | JUN 21 2016

In a legal career spanning five decades, Frank Iacobucci has not encountered a more complex set of issues than the one arising from Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples. “The establishment of a new relationship is the most important societal issue facing our country,” said the former Supreme Court justice at an event held at the University of Winnipeg, a year after the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Frank Iacobucci.
Frank Iacobucci.

Mr. Iacobucci, who was the chief negotiator of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, stressed the roles of history, education and economic participation in reconciliation efforts, in a talk co-sponsored by Universities Canada as part of its Mindshare series. The event was part of the Paths to Reconciliation conference hosted by the University of Winnipeg, which featured keynote speakers including Cindy Blackstock, an indigenous leader and associate professor at the University of Alberta, and Wab Kinew, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba and former associate vice-president, indigenous affairs, at U of Winnipeg.

In sharing views on the way forward, Mr. Iacobucci looked to the past and present of a relationship fraught with violence, different underlying assumptions of what a peace treaty entails and a long shadow cast by the residential school system, documented in the TRC’s report. He believes Canadian courts have provided “more opportunities to address the indigenous relationship in a respectful manner,” namely the duty to consult and accommodate indigenous peoples and rights.

But there are limits to what laws can do, and sometimes well-written laws do not reflect lived experience. Mr. Iacobucci noted that the Supreme Court of Canada has at least twice described the criminal justice system as “failing” indigenous peoples, who are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented on juries. On First Nations reserves, high rates of unemployment, addictions and suicide, soaring food prices and living conditions comparable to those in low-income countries are still prevalent.

“Laws, whether constitutional or otherwise, are necessary but they’re not sufficient – we have to go beyond that,” Mr. Iacobucci said. A long-term relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous peoples in Canada “must be principle based,” he said, adding that too much government action and private sector involvement may create conditions for a transaction as opposed to a partnership.

“A partnership by definition can’t exist if there isn’t mutual respect and trust,” Mr. Iacobucci said. “You can’t have trust without respect, but it has to be earned by conduct, by action, by policies that reflect that respect and build, hopefully, that mutual trust.”

Mr. Iacobucci’s talk can be viewed in full here. Future Mindshare events will feature topics such as mobility and migration, water security and the new Atlantic economy. The talks are live-streamed on Facebook and live-tweeted under #Mindshare2016. For more information, visit

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