What is a Royal Commission? Exploring Public Inquiries and Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

Much ink has been spilled and bytes transmitted over recent calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Both those for and against have raised the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) because the Liberal government failed to enact the changes it suggested, the logic that an inquiry would either be without substantive impact, or the RCAP’s failure requires another attempt. Today on Clio’s we look at the history of Royal Commissions in Canada as we explore their value and purpose.

Calls for an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women have only grown more urgent over the last several months. Canada’s Premiers have asked for an inquiry at their recent meeting, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall notably called for an inquiry one last week. Wab Kinew and Derek Nepinak both argue that a deeper solution is necessary, as it is not simply a matter of criminal action. Others have dismissed a potential inquiry as mere “posturing.”  Some focus on how much an inquiry would cost, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper was denounced for rejecting any sociological cause, to which Joseph Heath of induecourse.ca offered a response that is well worth reading. We recommend if you follow any of the links in this paragraph, it should be his article. What does history tell us about Royal Commissions?

There is an oft quoted poem about Commissions from British writer Geoffrey Parsons, who published it in August 1955 in the British humour periodical, Punch:

If you’re pestered by critics and hounded by faction
To take some precipitate, positive action
The proper procedure, to take my advice, is
Appoint a Commission and stave off the crisis.
By shelving the matter you daunt opposition
And blunt its impatience by months of attrition,
Replying meanwhile, with a shrug and a smile,
‘The matter’s referred to a Royal Commission.’
. . .
Thus, once a Commission in session commences,
All you have to do is to sit on your fences
No longer in danger of coming a cropper,
For prejudging its findings is highly improper.
When the subject’s been held for so long in suspension
That it ceases to call forth debate and dissension,
Announce without fuss ‘There’s no more to discuss.
The Royal Commission’s retired on a pension

Most Canadians can sympathize with Parsons’ observations. A Canadian joke from Doug Taylor goes, “Canadians tolerate crown corporations and royal commissions, though they understand neither.” We have a long history of Royal Commissions in Canada. One of the first inquiries held on Canadian soil was the famous Report on the Affairs of British North America by Lord Durham that examined relations between Canada’s French and English peoples. Although not a formal Commission as we know today, it echoed their intent in exploring Canadian policy and government practice. The first statute on the books was passed in 1848 by the United Canadas. This law was updated in 1868 with “An Act Respecting Inquiries Concerning Public Matters.” Part 1 of the act provides broadly for public inquiries of any sort, while Part 2 authorizes “departmental investigations.” Since then it has been updated many times but it fundamentally distinguishes between these two types of actions. Under Part 1 there have been over 450 public inquiries in Canada, and under Part 2 over 1,500 under federal jurisdiction (provincial inquires would add many more). Sometimes these are listed as Royal Commissions, other times as Public Inquiries, but there is no actual difference between them other than bearing the Royal seal.

There were far fewer public inquiries before the Great Depression, at least not in the broad national sense that modern Canadians are familiar with, though two of the most active Prime Ministers were before the 1930s. Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Liberal), Sir Robert Borden (Conservative), R.B. Bennett (Conservative) and William Lyon Mackenzie King (Liberal) were the most active Prime Ministers in calling inquiries. The most frequent decade was 1910-1919 with 83 commissions; 29 during the 1960s; 28 in the 1970s; 23 in 1870s; and 21 in the 1980s. There were seven during the 1990s and only five in the first decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately we don’t why know these numbers appear as they do – perhaps the First World War spurred the creation of many inquiries in the 1910s – but Evert Lindquist suggests the recent drop in the last two decades is a result of the expansion of research institute and think tanks.

Commissions can serve a wide variety of purposes. It’s important to distinguish between the two directions that an inquiry will follow. One is a “factual inquiry” that investigates a specific event or policy. An example of it would be the 1994 Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces in Somalia, or the 2004 “Gomery Inquiry” into the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal. The second is a “policy review,” which is often more broadly focused and investigate some aspect of existing Canadian government policy. They are usually better known, such as the 1949 Royal Commission on National Development of the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (the Massey Commission) which eventually led to the creation of Canadian content legislation, the founding of Library and Archives Canada, federal aid for universities, increased conservation for historic places, and many more. Sometimes commissions will be aimed at both factual and policy investigation, like the 2004 Commission on the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Maher Arar.

The reasons behind Commissions being formed are more variable. Ideally, they are called to make an investigation or knowledge public, facilitate the formation of government policy, or educating the public about an issue in a non-partisan way. Some, unfortunately, are called to delay or avoid blame on the current government (they often take a long time), to increase political support for a course of action, or other partisan purposes. The length and detailed investigations of a Royal Commission sometimes have the opposite effect one would expect from a “public inquiry” into something, in that the average citizen no longer cares about the issue that has grabbed headlines for years on end. Or, perhaps, the media was no longer concerned with the issue.

That is arguably the case after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released their final report in 1996. The Commission was created by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government to explore “the evolution of the relationship among aboriginal peoples (Indian, Inuit, and Metis), the Canadian government and Canadian society as a whole” in the aftermath of the 1991 Oka Crisis. The Commission traced a history of cooperation and equality, to displacement and assimilation, and supposedly had turned towards negotiations and renewal when it was released. But today, as Madeline Knickerboxer explored in a post for us last month, the history that underlines Canada’s relationship with its Aboriginal peoples is still deeply contested. What happened?

The greatest problem with the RCAP was not in fact among political leaders or the authors of the report itself. Rather, when the voluminous report was released at a length of thousands of pages, few journalists were able (or willing) to comprehensively examine and consider its findings. They did not read the deep historical context behind the RCAP conclusions, and instead focused solely on the recommendations suggested. In the midst of the 1990s when financial restraint was a popular political buzzword, media coverage painted the Report as a wasteful expense. They portrayed the “Aboriginal problem” in Canada as purely sociological (to use a recently popular turn of phrase) and in no way connected to the deep historic and institutionalized, systemic inequalities between Canadians and Aboriginal peoples. So while Aboriginals in Canada felt a deep connection to the Commission’s process and findings. After the Commissions’ cross-country research, based on an insightful mandate and delivered in a carefully thought-out conclusion, most of the Canadian public only perceived the list of recommendations that seemingly was produced out of thin air. Without being a part of the process or reading the extensive history that formed the basis of their research, the non-Aboriginal public was distant. The conversation and dialogue that the RCAP had intended to jumpstart evaporated after a barrage of articles dismissed the Commission’s findings and few Canadians felt connected to the Commission at all. Political leaders, wary of voter hostility, could do little to change the state of Aboriginal affairs and almost all of the RCAP’s recommendations have gone unheeded. Perhaps politicians would not have done anything anyways, but the apathetic response of Canadian media and consequently the Canadian people made it a much easier decision.

The lingering sense that Royal Commissions or Public Inquiries are a waste of time is perhaps an intuitive one that is not necessarily factual. As the RCAP demonstrates, there are an array of factors that impact a policy inquiry’s “success.” Understanding, of course, that there are different ways commissions are successful, since a factual inquiry is fairly straight forward. Among these factors, we must consider the dominant policy ideas that are being examined, the state of public opinion when the report is released, and the alignment of its recommendations with invested actors and institutions. It’s unlikely that a Commission recommending change to a long-standing institution, supported by government politicians and the public, will see its changes enacted. Commissions lay on a slippery slope: they must be political, in that they are shaping, educating and engaging with the public, but they must not be too political, or they risk becoming non-partisan – or at least they appear non-partisan to the public.

The main arguments against an inquiry over missing and murdered Aboriginal women is directly related to the RCAP and other commissions. An inquiry is, in the words of one journalist, “the best way to avoid actual action on native complaints.” Critics say that inquiries have already been done with well published findings, and that little has changed since then while the “solve rate” for these crimes is the same as for any other segment of Canadian population. These reasons may be compelling (we’ll leave that up to you to decide) but they are somewhat misleading. Many journalists discussing an inquiry today reflect on the “lack of action” from RCAP, completely unaware of their complicity in its failure. Unsurprisingly, the historical knowledge of journalists only seems to extend as far as their personal remembrances. Thankfully, pundits do not make government policy. (Sometimes Royal Commissions do however!)

 We think there are a couple of conclusions we can draw from our brief exploration of Royal Commissions. Commissions are representative of Canadian society and people. Why they are created, what they study, and whether or not they have an impact, all depends on the context of their times. Thus, we should not judge the viability of a commission solely on previous performance. As Madeline showed in her Clio’s post, we live in a very different time compared to the RCAP’s release in 1996. History explains the present, it does not predict the future. When weighing whether or not we should have an inquiry, it’s important to listen and understand the perspectives of actors invested in the issue, like Derek Nepinak or Stephen Harper, not those who have little at stake other than their opinions, like journalists. The success or failure of an inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women has nothing to do with the success or failure of the RCAP or whether we already “know” the problems.

In their best form, Commissions are successful because of their ability to dissect and disseminate their finding while reaching out to educate the public. If you think that is worthwhile on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, then support an inquiry. If you think that is unnecessary, then don’t. Don’t expect a magic set of solutions from an inquiry, or say that they are a waste of time and money, or discuss how they will or will not resolve the dispute between Canadians and Aboriginals.  Otherwise you are belittling, diminishing and politicizing a process that in its ideal form is apolitical, non-partisan, and educational.  That ideal form is shaped by journalists, politicians, and us – the public – so if it’s going to happen, at least we can do it right.


If you are interested in learning more about Royal Commissions, today's post was written with the conclusions from a recent publication, Commissions of Inquiry and Policy Change : A Comparative Analysis, edited by Gregory Inwood and Carolyn Johns.