When Loretta Ross was a young girl growing up in Manitoba, her school had a career day. The place was full of professionals from all sorts of fields. Yet there was only one Indigenous person. Ross was therefore drawn to him, and it was he who put the idea in her head that was to shape her future.
“He said [Indigenous people] need lawyers. He talked a little bit about why we need lawyers—and I said that’s it! I’m going to do that. That’s what I want to be.”
After the session, students returned to their classrooms, and their teacher asked them what careers they had decided they wanted to pursue.
“I put up my hand, and she said: ‘What do you want to be?’ I said ‘I want to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a lawyer!’ And she squished her nose at me, and she said ‘Don’t get too excited about it. Maybe you could be a teacher. Maybe you could be a nurse’s aide.’ Not a nurse, not a doctor, but maybe a nurse’s aide. ‘But you’ll never be a lawyer, so don’t get excited about it. You’ll probably be a mom. You’ll be good at that.’ That’s what she told me—don’t get excited about being a lawyer.”
Ross not only proved her teacher wrong, but she’s taken her career in a direction that offers critical support for Indigenous peoples, and the entire reconciliation process, in Manitoba. She’s the Commissioner for the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. Her job there, she explained following a public talk about the importance of the treaty relationship put off by the Gender Studies and Political Science departments at Memorial University last week, “is to educate people—all people—about treaties and the treaty relationship and its significance in modern times, and the lessons that we can take from the treaties and how we can use them in all aspects of our lives.”
The Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba is one of three such bodies across the country. There are also commissions in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. There’s currently work underway to establish one in Alberta. And there’s been talk of spreading the model more broadly. The Maritime provinces have discussed establishing a joint commission, and there’s also been discussion about creating a national one.
Ross is a strong advocate of the model, whose strength she says lies in its ability to facilitate dialogue.
“A commission—because it’s a neutral body, it’s [there] to educate and also try to facilitate and get people talking and working together—that lends itself to people being less threatened by the conversation, by the talk, and that type of thing. I think they should be all over the place. They should be in every territory to facilitate those dialogues.”
In the relatively short time that Manitoba’s commission has been in operation—it was established in 2003, and Ross has been Commissioner since 2017—she’s seen clear signs of the progress that’s been made through education and outreach.
“I went to an event about a month ago where I asked the question, how many people here know the treaties? It was with young people, and I bet you 99.9 percent of the hands went up. They understand the treaties. So compare that to me, when I went to school—the school system and the young people are changing.”
If anything, she says, the challenge lies with older generations who grew up without this knowledge, and reaching out to them often requires different ways of engaging. But she’s seen a growing interest even among older folk. Her office receives constant inquiries from church groups and educational institutions—especially post-secondary—to give talks and workshops.
“You can see there’s a demand for this knowledge. So you hope that that translates into something that’s actually changing the relationship. I do see it.”
As an example of shifting attitudes, Ross recalls an incident that occurred after the accused killer of Tina Fontaine was acquitted. There were rallies and protests across the country in response to the acquittal, including one in St. John’s.
“We had a session in our office, in our learning centre with newcomers, and one mum said ‘When [the protest] was on TV, my son who was nine years old said we have to go and walk with them. We have to go.’ And [the mom] asked why, and he taught her. So young people are teaching older people, and they’re understanding. And so she said ‘We went. We went and we walked side by side,’ and it did wonders for her, and her son was so proud to be an ally. So you see it, and hopefully it’ll grow and continue to grow.”
Newly elected Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford has been criticized for turning back the clock on Indigenous relations in that province. Already the premier has eliminated a stand-alone cabinet portfolio for Indigenous relations, as well as cut out revisions to educational curricula surrounding Indigenous peoples. Ross acknowledges that there’s a concern the sort of Trump-styled regressive white settler populism which the Ontario Conservatives have pursued could negatively affect reconciliation processes nationally.
“In Manitoba I see some of that popping up as well,” she says. “People are afraid, people feel threatened, and so they defend what they think is right. Yes, it’s a fear. I still have hope though in the silent majority, that they see through those types of things and that things will change. But it’s concerning, especially when people don’t respond and say ‘that’s not right.’ Because being tolerant, you can sometimes be too tolerant, and then things happen like what’s happening in the United States. And you think that because nobody’s saying anything, it’s okay to do that. So I think that we have to be a little bit more assertive in saying no, don’t do that.”
The ebb and flow of change
Conservative populism aside, Ross has a lot of hope for how the future is unfolding. As Treaty Commissioner, she says the most rewarding part of her job is seeing how much people want to change.
“People want to understand, and they want to take the time to sit and listen,” she reflects. When she gives talks, she says, “You can see an a-ha moment in people.”
“I like to work with them and see, and understand what the questions are. What are the fears? What are the questions that people have about treaty? Most people I find are very honest, you know, and say ‘I don’t know anything.’ Or ‘I always thought this’ or ‘I always thought that’…I enjoy it when people are honest and say ‘I just don’t know.'”
But as much as individuals want to change, institutions move more slowly. Convincing governments—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—to consider new ways of thinking or acting is one of the most challenging aspects of her role.
“The frustration is there doesn’t seem to be movement. How can the Commission help navigate that, without stepping on anybody’s toes? I think the frustration is what appears to be a lack of moving forward. There’s a lot of discussion which I think is good but we want to see movement or action.”
It’s not a phenomenon unique to Manitoba—Newfoundland and Labrador has seen considerable tension between provincial government and Indigenous governments in recent years, particularly around the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador.
In her 28-year legal career, Ross has tackled her share of struggles around hydro-power. She’s followed the struggle around Muskrat Falls in this province, and reflected on whether a structure like the Treaty Relations Commission might have helped to facilitate authentic dialogue between the NL provincial government and Indigenous groups in the province.
“You know, it could. It all depends on the willingness of the parties involved to say, we want the commission to get involved and help us resolve some of these issues. Lots of times when you’re dealing with industry they don’t want someone else to come and tell them because they have their plan and they want to stick to it, but I don’t see why a commission like that couldn’t be involved and help to facilitate some of those difficult issues in the future. It might be too late for Muskrat Falls, but I think we have to start looking at possibilities like that as we move forward. It’s not just the one way all the time. There are different things that we could be doing.”
The phenomenon of white settler judges and police officers arresting and passing sentence on Indigenous community members and land protectors in Labrador who are involved in fighting the Muskrat Falls project has also been criticized as a perpetuation of settler colonialism, and Ross observes that here too there ought to be thought given to different ways of handling the issue.
“First Nations have always said there’s got to be an independent tribunal,” she says. It’s not in her mandate to get involved in court cases, but she says some people have suggested a body like the Commission could have its mandate broadened to play a role in resolving legal cases involving Indigenous persons.
Ross points to Canada’s arguments with the United States over NAFTA. She says one of Canada’s positions has been the demand for independent tribunals to rule on NAFTA-related issues, rather than going through the courts of either country. She says the argument Canada is making in that context can be applied to the demand for an independent tribunal system to adjudicate legal issues involving Indigenous peoples.
“You look at NAFTA, one of the biggest disputes is the US wants to settle disputes in a US court, and Canada is saying are you crazy? Right? They want a different process of resolving disputes. So why not look at something like that and have it apply? But that mentality I think still has to change here internally for Canada…Hopefully they change, because they’re now faced with the same issue with the US. So now they get it, what the issue is! But for so long the Canadian court system has been the only way to resolve any disputes. It just doesn’t make sense.”
The importance of a name
Another issue that’s seized headlines in the province in recent months has been the debate over changing the name of the annual June holiday. Earlier this year, the City of St. John’s renamed the day formerly called ‘Discovery Day’ to ‘St. John’s Day.’ Debate has ensued over whether the provincial government should also change the name of that holiday. Ross is fully in support of changing the name.
“I’d be happy. Anything that says ‘we discovered,’ I think should be re-examined and taken another look at. It makes things difficult, and it goes deep. The John A. MacDonald discussion that’s been happening across the country, and people taking down his statues wherever they are, I think it forces self-examination. Who are we?
“I’m not in favour of events like Discovery Day or ‘we discovered this place’ because it takes away from the Indigenous people that were here. And there were Indigenous people here. People go back and say ‘well the dinosaurs were here first’ or ‘you came across the Bering Strait,’ and you have all of these things that try to minimize or take away from Indigenous people, but the fact is Indigenous people were here. They were here when the explorers and others came to this land, and so events or things like Discovery Day just takes that part of the heritage of our country and this territory, it takes it away. And I think we have to go back and find different ways of doing it…I’m not sure what you could replace it with but I’m sure there are a lot of other things that would describe things better than Discovery Day.”
Ross finds it ironic that the Canadian government hosts celebrations like last year’s Canada 150 events, yet there are no events or holidays celebrating treaties, which are what made it possible for Canada to come into existence in the first place.
“Treaties was what allowed it, but we don’t celebrate treaties. And somebody will say ‘Oh well we have Aboriginal Day.’ But it’s not a mandatory holiday, it’s not a national holiday, so it’s not of the same significance. Maybe if it was, maybe that would change things.”
The discussion over ‘Discovery Day’ has proven to be intensely polarizing. How does one cut through knee-jerk reactions, and encourage meaningful dialogue, on an issue that sparks such a polarizing reaction in people?
“It’s difficult to get through to people,” Ross admits. “I think somehow you have to bring it to something that they understand. I don’t really know enough about Newfoundland. But what I do know is that Newfoundlanders are proud of Newfoundland, and who they are, and there’s a sense of ‘We are a people here!’ But do you do that at the expense of someone else, of some other people? Indigenous people are people too, and they’re here. Why is yours more important than Indigenous people? It’s a share, really, it’s a sharing of the land and the history and the heritage of this area. And why not? What is the harm in doing it? It doesn’t take away from the Newfoundland people and their sense of nationality and who they are, but it’s just respecting somebody else that was in this territory before you.
“But people feel threatened. That’s what I find, there’s this fear that drives people to become so positioned in their belief…fear that is the driving force somehow. You know, that I’m going to give something up if I’m going to admit that there’s somebody else that was here, right?”
Decolonizing and Indigenizing…but on whose terms?
One of the topics of discussion in recent years at the university level has been how to decolonize and Indigenize the academy. While Ross emphasizes the importance of using universities to teach and learn about Indigenous history and culture, she warns that often what’s referred to as ‘Indigenizing’ is done on the institution’s terms, rather than acknowledging the need for deeper, more substantive change.
“I try not to get too caught up in labels, but I’m not crazy about that word Indigenizing,” she says. “You know, we have to change the institutions that we have. I mean, you can Indigenize to the extent that you recognize history, but…when we bring that knowledge into the institutions we think that we’re Indigenizing it, so what does that really mean? What are we talking about? Different people will have different ideas about what that means, but I think it’s getting a better understanding of Indigenous people, Indigenous culture, and making room, if that’s what we want to do, for Indigenous people to talk about themselves and share who they are on their own terms.”
She offers the example of the outcry over the relocation of convicted murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic to a healing lodge in Saskatchewan. Ross says that on one level, introducing Indigenous healing lodges to the penal system as an approach to try to heal people could be seen as a good example of Indigenization. On the other hand, however, she notes that it remains the authority of Corrections Canada to determine who goes to the healing lodge. The authority of the Elders in this process is neither acknowledged or funded, she notes.
“So it’s saying okay, we can bring you into these institutions but under our terms. And I don’t think that that’s going to work for very long.”
For universities, she says, Indigenization ought to mean more than simply introducing Indigenous history and culture courses. Instead, why don’t universities begin recognizing existing Indigenous learning opportunities, off-campus, for credit? Demanding that Indigenization happen under the university’s terms and authority falls short of authentic collaboration, she points out. Acknowledging existing Indigenous forms of learning for course credit would be a more sincere form of collaboration, she says.
“I mean that’s Indigenizing! That to me is more Indigenizing than to say ‘we have to do it here, we have to control it,’ you know? Indigenizing means more than that, more than ‘we have to have it here, our rules and our way.'”