OTTAWA – On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologised to the Aboriginal people of Canada over the Residential Schools issue. The Prime Minister said, “Today, we recognize this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.”
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said, “Successive Canadian governments and various churches were complicit in the mental, physical and sexual abuse of thousands of aboriginal children through the residential schools system. As the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, a party that was in government for more than 70 years in the 20th century, I acknowledge our role and our shared responsibility in this tragedy. I am deeply sorry. I apologize”.
This long overdue apology came over the rhetoric, and over the partisanship of the House of Commons. In fact, before begining his formal apology, the Prime Minister said, “Last, but certainly not least, I do want to thank my colleague, the leader of the New Democratic Party. For the past year and a half, he has spoken to me with regularity and great conviction on the need for this apology. His advice, given across party lines and in confidence, has been persuasive and has been greatly appreciated”.
It was a moment that saw the party leaders, the Aboriginal leaders, and the Parliament and Senate standing together. Jack Layton perhaps said it best, “Today we mark a very significant moment for Canada. It is the moment when we, as a Parliament, as a country, take responsibility for one of the most shameful periods in our history. It is the moment for us to finally apologize. It is the moment when we will start to build a shared future, a future based on equality and built on mutual respect and truth.
“It was this Parliament that enacted, 151 years ago, the racist legislation that established the residential schools. This Parliament chose to treat first nations, Métis and Inuit people as not equally human. It set out to kill the Indian in the child. That choice was horribly wrong. It led to incredible suffering. It denied first nations, Métis and Inuit the basic freedom to choose how to live their lives. For those wrongs that we have committed, we are truly sorry”.
While some figure that “suck it up butter cup” should be how our Aboriginal peoples should have adapted to the issue of residential schools, that is simply wrong.
Imagine if you would, if Italian people, moving to our community had their children taken from them, and those children were refused to participate in their cultural heritage, their language, and in their religious beliefs.
That is in effect exactly what happened to Aboriginal families where children were ripped from their families and removed from their communities.
The road forward has been moving along forward, although for some slower than it should. However, now, that process is continuing with an announcement that the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations are agreeing to work together in a spirit of co-operation. That too is a process that needs “Facta non Verba” – deeds not words, but it is a positive step forward. With yesterday’s announcement, by the Assembly of First Nations and the Government, the two parties appear willing to work toward solving some of the serious problems.
While in the new Parliament, there is, at least for now, the appearance of greater civility, you could still sense that the Conservatives are looking at the Liberals a little less than as an inconvenience.
During Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on June 9th, the issue of Aboriginal Affairs was debated. The Liberal Party, led off under Leader Bob Rae, throughout Question Period there were additional questions asked on the issue as well, with Linda Duncan of the New Democrats, and Liberal Carolyn Bennett up to question Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Here is the first exchange:
Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.): “Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General also commented on an issue of importance to Canadians, namely the condition of aboriginal communities on reserves. I have a simple question for the Prime Minister.
“Is he prepared to show some humility on this issue by acknowledging that his government completely and unilaterally cancelled the Kelowna accord, which would have had a positive impact on the conditions noted by the Auditor General today?”
Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Party should show some humility on this because it did nothing during 13 years in government. Our government has worked with the aboriginal communities. We have made significant investments to improve conditions on the reserves. A lot of work still needs to be done and I hope during this Parliament we will have the support of the Liberal Party to make these significant investments in these communities.
On Thursday, the Assembly of First Nations and the Conservative Government came to an agreement to move issues on Canada’s reserves forward.
Ms. Linda Duncan (Edmonton—Strathcona, NDP): “Mr. Speaker, today the Auditor General reported on the abject failure over the past decade by the current and former federal governments to address 15 of her most critical recommendations for first nations. In fact, today’s audit reveals worsening conditions for first nation reserve housing, schools and drinking water, a disparity, in the words of Sheila Fraser, unacceptable in a country as rich as Canada.
Will the government today commit to expedited action on the needed laws, measures and dollars to right these wrongs?”
Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): “Mr. Speaker, the government always takes the Auditor General’s advice very seriously. The Auditor General’s report focuses on what has already happened. We are looking to the future, developing partnerships with aboriginal people across Canada. We have made progress and we are achieving concrete results.
We recognize that more needs to be done. We are in a new phase. This morning the National Chief and I announced a joint action plan on priority areas: education, good governance, economic development, negotiation and implementation.
“We have a plan. We work in collaboration and we are results-oriented.”
In those answers, you can read a definite bit of attitude from the Conservatives. If the Conservative Party can do what they are setting out to do, it is very likely that there will be a generations long shift of votes from Aboriginal voters. That is a group which has not traditionally supported the Conservatives.
Sometimes however it is interesting to look at which party has engaged “Facta non Verba”.
When it comes to seeking results, the reality is that those results are the goal, not partisanship. It is an issue that impacts a large number of people. In 2006, Aboriginal people in Canada – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – surpassed the one-million mark, reaching 1,172,790. Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population grew by 45%, compared with 8% for the non-Aboriginal population.
Here in Thunder Bay between people moving to our community, and those people here with young families, the fastest growing segment of our population are found in our Aboriginal population. Making sure the people are on a more solid footing is not only common sense, it is, in the long run the right thing to do.