Willie Littlechild didn’t want to serve as a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he’s thankful he did.
He was initially reluctant when he agreed to serve, if named, as one of the three commissioners. When he didn’t hear back about it, he assumed someone else was chosen.
Then a phone call came at two o’clock in the morning — a messenger contacting him, apparently unaware of the time difference, in Geneva, Switzerland, where Littlechild was staying on United Nations business. He had been appointed commissioner, along with Marie Wilson and Murray Sinclair.
With his appointment, Littlechild had the chance to hear more than 7,000 statements during 240 days of hearings. He also helped host seven national events attended by an estimated 155,000 people.
The commission wrapped up in 2015 after six-and-a-half years of work.
“It’s been such a blessing — a real blessing — to serve on the commission,” he told a crowd of about 40 at Thompson Rivers University on Saturday as part of a Truth and Reconciliation forum being held by the school.
Littlechild brought a wide range of lived experience to the commission. As a child and young adult, he spent a combined 14 years in three different residential schools. As an escape from the tragedies and abuses he witnessed and suffered through in those schools, Littlechild turned to sports, earning a bachelor’s degree (and later a master’s degree) in physical education while playing hockey and swimming for the Golden Bears at the University of Alberta.
Later, he earned a law degree and was the first Indigenous person appointed to Queen’s Counsel in Alberta. He was also the first Treaty Indian elected as a member of Parliament.
On the commission, Littlechild was also the person who chose the term “call to action.”
While serving on a previous justice commission, Littlechild noticed there had been 33 justice reviews done across Canada, with more than 3,000 recommendations, yet prisons were still being filled up because the recommendations were not being implemented.
In his work with the United Nations, Littlechild noticed of all the words used in reports, “recommendation” was the easiest to ignore.
“I suggested we have fewer recommendations and we’ll call them ‘calls to action’ because that’s what we needed,” he said. “We only have 94 calls to action when we could have had many, many more.”
According to Beyond 94, a CBC website tracking the implementation of the TRC’s calls to action, 10 of the calls to action have been completed, 15 are in progress, 25 have been proposed and 44 have yet to begin.
Littlechild said there is a very short window of opportunity to make progress.
“We have a government that is willing to move with us towards reconciliation. What happens if there’s a change in government? Do we start all over again?” he asked. “I’m concerned that we keep need to moving forward while there is political will.”
The Treaty 6 First Nations Grand Chief said reconciliation is an ongoing process.
“Some say it’s going to take us seven generations since it took us seven generations to get here. I’m more optimistic than that,” he said.
Littlechild said he sees reconciliation manifesting in a number of ways.
In the justice community, he has seen judges asking how they’re going to use the calls to action in courtrooms. He sees law societies familiarizing themselves with the TRC’s work. He sees police organizations asking how they can implement the calls to action.
And he sees similar action in the economic arena.
“We’re talking about partnerships. There are some good joint ventures and conferences are being held on difficult issues like pipelines,” he said.
Littlechild noted education and health sectors are also moving forward.
“Medical schools are now teaching nurses and doctors, opening up a window for traditional medicine,” he said. “They’re asking themselves as doctors and nurses, ‘How do we create space to allow a joint effort for us to consider and recognize traditional medicine to be available in hospitals?’”
Private and public schools are asking how they can change their curricula to include more Indigenous history, including residential school history, he said.
Finally, Littlechild addressed the role of sports in truth and reconciliation.
“Sports has a very powerful role to heal,” he said.
Littlechild would know. Not only does he have his own sporting history, which includes more than 70 provincial, regional, national and international championships and induction into seven sports halls of fame, but his accolades have continued aside from competition.
He is a co-founder of the North American Indigenous Games and was the first Indigenous torch bearer and ambassador at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
More recently, Littlechild has been lending his voice to efforts to bring the Olympics back to Canada, with Calgary moving forward with a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, where he hopes to see Indigenous athletes compete.