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Barometer project tracks public opinion to gauge progress on reconciliation

University researchers add ‘one tool in the toolbox’ to help better understand the state of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

BY RILEY YESNO | APR 22 2022

Commitments for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have been getting more attention since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report in 2015. The commission documented testimony from over 6,500 residential school survivors and their families – capturing a picture of the trauma and harm those schools inflicted, and the enduring legacy of violence that Indigenous peoples are trying to heal from.

So how successful have attempts at this project been to date? How have non-Indigenous people grown in their understanding of reconciliation? Where do gaps still exist? These are the types of questions the Canadian Reconciliation Barometer (CRB) is trying to understand.

The idea was first thought of following the release of the TRC’s final report and calls to action. CRB co-investigator Ry Moran, who was also the founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), and principal investigator Katherine Starzyk were two of the key figures who came together in the project’s early days.

Dr. Starzyk, who also runs the Social Justice Laboratory at the University of Manitoba, had returned from work in South Africa and became connected with the NCTR, Mr. Moran, and others committed to the work of reconciliation. The team knew that measuring progress would be important but didn’t know exactly what that should entail.

Reconciliation barometers exist elsewhere in the world, including in South Africa and Australia. In this way, the CRB would be joining a project of understanding reconciliation efforts that extends far beyond Canadian borders – but using its own unique approach. “We didn’t want to assume that the work other reconciliation barometers were doing globally would work here. Not because they’ve done things badly… but Canada has its own history and it was important to us that survivors’ ideas of what reconciliation is would be at the core of the work,” Dr. Starzyk said.

Choosing a methodology

Ultimately, the CRB decided to focus on public opinion. By producing and analyzing survey data, they aim to better understand what reconciliation means to Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada over time. “We wanted to know what the average person thought [about reconciliation],” Dr. Starzyk said. “If people think work is done, then they may not feel so motivated for more work to happen even if it is necessary.”

Today, their team includes 11 primary members and many additional contributors. The organization is run by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and collaborators located primarily in Winnipeg and Victoria. The CRB has ties to the U of M and the NCTR as well as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which provides the primary funding for the project through an Insight Grant of $293,090 that runs through 2026.

Their online survey is conducted in collaboration with Probe Research and is completed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It contains 13 indicators of reconciliation such as acknowledging harm from a variety of places or actors, and the state of individual and systemic equality. Respondents are presented with 64 statements, which they are asked to indicate how much they agree or disagree with. The number of overall “agree” responses signals reconciliation. Similar level of agreement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents’ answers also signals reconciliation. This speaks to the nature of reconciliation taking place not only between institutions, but also between individuals.

This methodology allows the CRB to not only gauge the overall state of reconciliation but also how specific elements are perceived and whether there are differing perceptions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – including any potential signs of relations deteriorating. Mr. Moran stressed the importance of this latter function, stating that “monitoring is key to making sure that we prevent the same wrongdoings from occurring again and again. After all, reconciliation is not guaranteed.” In this way, the CRB not only serves to inform, but also acts as a watchdog for future atrocities.

Related initiatives

While other projects share certain elements with the CRB, its work appears to be distinct in Canada.

Other Indigenous research institutions such as the Yellowhead Institute, based at X University (formerly Ryerson University), have done work to track progress on the TRC’s 94 calls to action. But their focus is broader than reconciliation and public opinion. The Assembly of First Nations and the non-profit Indigenous Watchdog also track progress on the calls to action, including a scale that measures the stage of progress on each one. The CBC, does similar work, with their Beyond 94 project.

The Angus Reid Institute and other polling firms have done some work to track opinions on, and knowledge about reconciliation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people but their work is not directly informed by Indigenous expertise and principles, as is the CRB. And once again, they collect data on a broader range of topics.

Both Mr. Moran and Dr. Starzyk note the importance of these multiple tracking and accountability mechanisms. “This study does not attempt to do everything,” Mr. Moran said. “It is just one tool in the toolbox, and other measures are still of paramount importance.”

Findings to date

The CRB released its first annual report in February 2022, detailing its findings from the year prior. To reach the average person, they collected survey responses from 1,119 Indigenous and 2,106 non-Indigenous people. They tried to gather these responses from people of all different demographics: different incomes, education levels, regional locations, genders, and other identity factors.

One of their key findings is that across each of the 13 indicators of reconciliation, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people agree more than they disagree. However, the level of perceived progress varies between each group. Non-Indigenous respondents said more progress has been made than Indigenous people did.

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents show similar levels of agreement in some areas. Unfortunately, the areas of consensus included how well Indigenous people are represented in positions of leadership and decision-making – which was overwhelmingly perceived as poor.

The CRB’s findings also indicate that both groups agree that relatively little progress is being made in the area of personal equality – that is the notion that “Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada have equal life outcomes.” Indigenous people were seen as experiencing significantly unequal outcomes when it comes to financial security, mental health, job and promotion opportunities, education and physical health.

The CRB also noted differences across regions and within respondent groups. For example, they found that “the largest gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples tended to be in the Prairie region” and that “Indigenous people with higher incomes tended to think that reconciliation was progressing better than those with lower incomes.”

When discussing the findings from the annual report, Dr. Starzyk said they’re significant because “people need to have some level of a shared understanding… and it is non-Indigenous people who need to come closer to Indigenous people’s truths about things.” She added that when people become aware of the gaps in their understanding of what life is like in Canada for non-Indigenous people compared to what it’s like for Indigenous people, they may be more likely to re-evaluate their beliefs.

Challenges and the road ahead

The CRB’s work isn’t without its difficulties. Reflecting on these challenges, Dr. Starzyk noted how expensive it can be to undertake surveys of this magnitude. “Internationally, a lot of barometers get started and then falter because it takes a great deal of energy and personnel time,” she said. “We actually don’t have anyone working [on the CRB] full-time. Everyone is doing this off the side of their desks because they’re passionate about it – which is great, but hopefully we will be able to change that at some point!”

Mr. Moran also acknowledged the need to reach respondents in the North more effectively. “The [North] is an acknowledged gap in our study. This is something we will be looking to improve on,” he said.

Despite these challenges, the CRB continues dreaming up big plans.

One goal is for their findings to be used to inform policy related to reconciliation. Another is to build an international network of people undertaking similar work. Dr. Starzyk remarked that other projects share similar goals of “furthering Indigenous well-being, and creating a better future together.” With shared goals should come shared knowledge and collaboration – there just needs to be a process to facilitate it.

The CRB is also working to translate its findings into French and hopes to be able to expand this translation to include some Indigenous languages as well – another area where increased funding would help.

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will be able to see “substantial investment into monitoring – especially through the NCTR – as is considered a best practice after major human rights inquiries like the TRC,” Mr. Moran said.

The impacts of such investments cannot be understated. After all, it is critical to have a picture of where Canada stands on reconciliation, and how much further we have to go. As Mr. Moran put it: “We are still in the early days of reconciliation.”

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