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

December 11, 2023
The Canadian Press

A CN Rail engineer oversees a diesel locomotive reversing into a asphalt/sealant processing facility in Bedford, N.S. Photo: Getty Images
By Jamin Mike

A council of prominent Indigenous leaders tasked with advising Canadian National Railway Co. says all 12 members have submitted resignations over what they say is the company’s failure to acknowledge past wrongs and to follow its recommendations for reconciliation.

The resignations take effect Dec. 31.

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

But they say the 104-year-old company has “missed the mark” on reconciliation 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.”

No response yet from CN

CN is expected to issue a response today, but did not comment immediately on the resignations.

The railway says on its website that it operates in or near about 230 reserve lands, including a few in the United States.

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.”

In the late 1800s, almost 5,000 Indigenous 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.

Council formed in 2021

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 and fostering meaningful and long-lasting relationships between the railway and Indigenous Peoples.

In their statement, the co-chairs 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,” Sinclair and Jamieson said in the statement.

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.”

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

“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.

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