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Harper shows little enthusiasm for 'reconciliation' report PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Written by Joan Russow
Thursday, 04 June 2015 21:40


Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs Elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache, a residential school survivor, during the closing ceremony of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at Rideau Hall on Wednesday.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper is already distancing himself from a special commission that has called for fundamental changes to Canada’s relationship with its indigenous people.

Harper’s position of studied indifference calls into question whether the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will have a brutally short shelf-life. That could be the case if the Conservatives are re-elected to govern on Oct. 19.

On the other hand, with both the New Democrats and Liberals saying they support the TRC’s sweeping proposals, the commission’s blueprint could become federal government policy in coming years if Harper is turfed from office.

It wasn’t always this way.

On June 11, 2008, Harper rose in the House of Commons to personally deliver a seemingly emotional and sincere apology on behalf of Canada for its role in the establishment of residential schools.

He told MPs the “cornerstone” of a legal settlement between former residential school students and the federal government and churches was the newly created TRC.

“It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us,” said Harper.

But seven years later, Harper’s relations with the country’s First Nations chiefs – and grassroots movements such as Idle No More – are downright hostile.

No longer is he delivering heartfelt speeches on the issue in the Commons, and certainly not to gatherings of former residential school students, commonly known as “survivors.”

This week, when the TRC released a summary of its final report to hundreds of those survivors at a downtown Ottawa hotel, Harper was just a few blocks away in the nation’s capital but chose not to attend.

Instead, he sent Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt (who sat uncomfortably next to NDP leader Tom Mulcair in the front row in the hall) to formally respond to the TRC’s report.

On Wednesday, the prime minister did attend the commission’s ceremonial closing at Rideau Hall, an emotion-packed event that left many of the school survivors and others present wiping away tears.

But Harper spoke no words. Rather, he issued a non-committal news release that thanked the TRC for its “hard work” and paid tribute to the “tremendous courage” of former residential school students.

Neither Harper nor Valcourt has held a news conferences to answer questions.

Instead, at Rideau Hall, Harper gave the floor to the TRC’s three commissioners, and to Gov. Gen David Johnston — all of whom delivered gracious speeches about the need for Canada to make substantive improvements to the lives of aboriginals in the wake of the residential schools.

“As we’ve heard this week, our actions must be consistent with our words,” Johnston told guests in the ornate ballroom.

“We must demonstrate our commitment to respect, tolerance and inclusiveness as a country.”

At the start of the ceremony, aboriginal elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache delivered a plaintive prayer, directly urging Harper to join in reconciliation.

“I cried all week,” she said. “Pray for me to be at one with you, Mr. Harper.”

But Harper does not appear interested in spending any of his political capital on supporting the TRC’s cause.

In the House of Commons this week, he said his government has already taken “multiple actions” for aboriginals and has spent or committed “vast amounts of money” for their health care and education.

Moreover, with a fall campaign pending, Harper appears to be playing for time. He says his government won’t respond to the TRC’s 94 recommendations until sometime after the commission releases its full six-volume, two-million-word full report later this year.

In the meantime, it’s evident the governing Tories will reject many of the commission’s recommendations. They include:

– An inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. Harper has rejected the suggestion the problem is a “sociological phenomenon” and says it should be left to police.

– Full adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Harper’s government views it merely as an “aspirational” document. The commissioners met privately with Harper and Sinclair said after that they remain concerned about Harper’s “resistance” to the UN declaration.

– New federal legislation to improve national First Nations education, drafted with the “full participation and informed consent” of aboriginals. The government introduced such a bill last year, then dropped it when it was opposed by the Assembly of First Nations. The Tories have suggested they will instead do side-deals with individual communities.

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