Frustration continues with lack of government action on aboriginal issues

By Greer Gemin

On July 1, Canada celebrated its 148th birthday with a party on Parliament Hill, and the overall theme of the event was, of course, promoting Canadian unity and pride. If a country is allowed anything for their birthday it should be a shot at some shameless self-promotion.

Canada is a country that prides itself on diversity and multiculturalism, and rightly so, given the wide range of people who have contributed and continue to contribute to its progress as a nation. With this is in mind, diversity through language, culture, and ethnicity is clearly an advantageous political strategy. But some would argue that the Canadian government has not made a sufficient effort to integrate this diversity into legislation. Particularly, aboriginal rights seem to be conspicuously absent from discussions about Canada’s future.

On May 28, The Globe and Mail reported on Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin’s speech towards Canada’s abuses of its aboriginal population where she called the use of the residential school system an attempt to commit “cultural genocide.” Many are calling this a statement of symbolic importance, as it allows educators to use a term which adequately describes the horrific experiences of residential school victims.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology regarding residential schools in 2008 was significant for being the first recognition of its kind, but we’ve moved past the point of needing only recognition. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given concrete recommendations as to how Canada can start repairing relationships ruined by aboriginal schools, and has made these recommendations known to both the government and the public.

In early June, Prime Minister Harper had an opportunity to act on one of the recommendations when he visited Pope Francis in Rome: the TRC’s call for an apology from the Roman Catholic Church for the role they played in residential schools. According to The Globe and Mail, Harper did not directly request this of the Pope during his visit.

It seems that the federal government is not forthcoming about plans to take action on the recommendations or other serious concerns affecting aboriginal communities, as was demonstrated at the end of June in the case of the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.

According to The Globe and Mail, Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg have both committed to funding a permanent, all-season road connecting the reserve to the mainland. Without this road the community is isolated from essential services such as paramedics and home-care workers. In addition to their isolation, the community is afflicted by an aqueduct built to supply clean water to Winnipeg that has been diverting contaminated water to Shoal Lake 40 for a century. According to The Globe, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford would not say definitively that the federal government was committed to completing the funding they promised for the road, leaving the community feeling frustrated.

This recent frustration is particularly disappointing given that just this summer the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were held in the nation’s capital between May 31 and Jun. 3. The sense of community and pride displayed at the “Honouring Memories – Planting Dreams” ceremony was particularly overwhelming. In preparation for the ceremony, children from all over Canada decorated paper hearts and sent them to be “planted” by children from the Ottawa-Gatineau area in the gardens of Rideau Hall. The designs varied in seriousness, ranging from playful quotes such as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to solemn drawings, such as one of a faceless doll chained in a cave.

The theme of the day was “This Ending is Just the Beginning,” and it could not have been more appropriate. Generations of aboriginal culture were represented, from an older woman who wore a clan blanket, to two 11-year-old girls who were throat singing for the crowd. As well, the participation of young non-aboriginal Canadians and their commitment to recognizing and empathizing with the horrors of residential schools were promising for the future of Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal people. With a new generation of Canadians being brought up with awareness and understanding, change does not seem so difficult.

Canada isn’t the same as it was 148 years ago, and it shouldn’t be. We should take the opportunity of a 150th anniversary to honour the people who will shape Canada’s future – one that hopefully not only includes, but celebrates its aboriginal communities.

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