How much is an apology worth?
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons to deliver an “historic apology” to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada for the forced removal of 150,000 of their children to residential schools during most of the last century. In those schools, many of the kids were abused, sexually, emotionally and physically: untold numbers of them died of neglect. That government policy created deep wounds that have not yet nearly healed.
So the Prime Minister’s apology was a welcome one in many quarters. Could it mark a turning-point in relations between the federal government and the indigenous peoples of Canada? Would the kids be better off?
Since Harper made his statement, we have been made aware of the on-going problems in one Aboriginal community, Attawapiskat, “lucky” enough to have attracted media attention. No doubt its problems are duplicated on countless other remote reserves. It took years of lobbying and publicity even to get a school for the local children—one that was finally grudgingly approved but has not yet been built. Following that came a housing crisis, which the Harper government tried to blame on “financial mismanagement” by the Attawapiskat band until a federal court ruling set them straight.
How do Aboriginal children fare today in comparison with other Canadian children? They receive considerably less social services per child, as it happens, and an expensive court case is now being pursued on their behalf after the Harper government refused to budge. An outspoken advocate for the kids is veteran activist Cindy Blackstock, whose reward has been to be stalked by Harper government officials—they’ve infiltrated meetings, monitored her Facebook account and compiled a file on her. This will be the subject of an upcoming hearing before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The cost to the taxpayer so far of the government’s fight against Native children’s equality? Over $3 million.
And the outrages continue. The Harper government has refused point-blank to release essential documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body mandated to examine the residential school days and take testimony from survivors. This has required even more legal action, and created major delays in the Commission’s work:
“If the parties, through incompetence, delays or deliberate stonewalling (or a combination thereof) sabotage the work of the commission, then Canadians are certain to forget (and never fully learn) what has happened,” the commission’s factum states.
…Under the agreement, the government of Canada and churches are obliged to provide all “relevant documents in their possession or control” to the commission. Court filings show years of government squabbling over the word “relevant.”
The government has also just finished passing omnibus Bill C-45, which contains measures to erode First Nations control over their own land, without consulting them. As another matter of deep concern to Aboriginal people, the bill also removed environmental protection from most of Canada’s lakes and waterways—while leaving lakes in Conservative ridings protected.
This ham-fisted arrogance has produced a growing backlash from First Nations communities across the land—demonstrations, two hunger strikes (one by the Attawapiskat band chief Theresa Spence) and the birth of a promising new movement, Idle No More (website here; follow @IdleNoMore on Twitter).
Since that day more than four years ago when Harper stood in the House, his government has been pressing ahead, locked in what the brilliant First Nations commentator apihtawikosisan calls a “life-threatening, abusive relationship” with the Aboriginal community.
Apology? What apology? All that is left is empty air, stinking of Conservative racism, hypocrisy and incompetence.
UPDATE: Some sobering statistics from the Globe & Mail’s André Picard.