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Indigenous advisory council for CN resigns, says railway won’t accept responsibility

A council of prominent Indigenous leaders tasked with advising Canadian National Railway Co. has resigned over what they say is the company’s failure to acknowledge past wrongs and follow its recommendations for reconciliation.

The resignations by all 12 members of the CN Indigenous Advisory Council take effect Dec. 31.

Council co-chairs Murray Sinclair, a former senator and head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Roberta Jamieson, the first female First Nations lawyer in Canada, said in a statement that they tried to foster understanding, connections and transparency in outlining steps for the railway’s reconciliation efforts.

But the 104-year-old company has “missed the mark” on reconciliation, they said, and that in order to have a better relationship with Indigenous Peoples, it must accept its past, take action and commit to change led by Indigenous business leaders.

“Regardless of who was in charge, CN played a role in the oppression of Indigenous Peoples and there is no path forward without that acknowledgment,” the co-chairs said in the statement Monday.

“Rail and freight cars represent the strong arm of oppression in early Canadian history.”

CN put out on Monday a formal acknowledgment of the historical role railways played “as instruments of colonial policies,” and noted the social, cultural, and economic toll they have taken on generations of Indigenous communities.

“CN is committed to its journey towards reconciliation. That journey begins with a better understanding of history, and thoughtful commitments coupled with robust governance to measure our performance against those commitments,” said Olivier Chouc, vice-president responsible for Indigenous relations.

CN thanked the council members for their contributions and said it has accepted their resignations.

The railway says it operates in or near about 230 reserve lands in Canada.

Historians have said the building of Canada’s railways often meant land dispossession and starvation for Indigenous people.

James Daschuk said in his book Clearing the Plains that trains brought settlers and were a “fatal disease vector.” Gord Hill, a Kwakwakwa’wakw artist and activist, describes trains as “engines of colonization” in The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book.

CN Rail locomotives are moved on tracks past cargo containers sitting on idle train cars at port in Vancouver, in February 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In the late 1800s, almost 5,000 First Nations people were removed from the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan by withholding food rations to make room for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fort William First Nation in Ontario settled a land claim in 2016 stemming from a historic relocation to build the Grand Trunk Railway.

When the advisory council was formed in 2021, CN said it was to be independent and made up of Indigenous leaders, with representation of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people from each province and territory.

Its mandate was to provide advice, with goals of reinforcing diversity and inclusion, as well as fostering meaningful and long-lasting relationships between the railway and Indigenous Peoples.

Sinclair said in a telephone interview that council discussions with CN are confidential.

“But in the meantime, we’re giving them the opportunity to take their own steps,” he said.

“We’ve decided that our utility to CN is no longer worth the effort that we’re putting out and that they need to decide what to do about that.”

‘CN had no intention of acknowledging … their role’

In their statement, Sinclair and Jamieson said that when they agreed to their roles, they wanted to make CN a better company and that the railway understood success was dependent on bettering its relationships with Indigenous people.

“We were received with great enthusiasm and positive intent by CN at the time,” they said.

They said the council produced a report with recommendations for the company, including that CN acknowledge past harms to Indigenous people and implement an apology framework.

“After the release of the report, it became clear to us that CN had no intention of acknowledging and accepting their role in the historical and ongoing impact on Indigenous Peoples,” they said.

They said the company’s reconciliation action plan will fail if it’s not based on “full acceptance of responsibility.” 

Sinclair told CBC Indigenous that CN’s proposed reconciliation action plan was “a source of disagreement” between it and the council and that they couldn’t come to an agreement about how to implement the council’s recommendations.

In the statement the co-chairs wrote, “We are concerned that to continue our work any longer would mislead Indigenous Peoples as to CN’s sincerity and authenticity to reconcile.

“For that, the Council has decided it can no longer support the notion that CN has a commitment to honour our work and we have resigned.”

In the statement, they also urged CN to take a critical look at what it is doing as an organization, look at its scope of influence and transform the way it does business, while continuing to consult with Indigenous people.

CN said Monday it has put together a team of nine managers that includes Indigenous and regional representation to foster respectful relationships with Indigenous communities and develop the railway’s “reconciliation action plan” along with senior executives.

CN said it plans to release the plan next year with “specific, measurable initiatives” followed by regular updates on its performance versus its goals.

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