Credit to Harper for this apology

Posted on June 12, 2008 in Equality Debates – comment/editorial – Credit to Harper for this apology
June 12, 2008 .

Striking an unusual (for him) non-partisan chord, Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday gave credit to NDP Leader Jack Layton for pressing for an apology for the residential school system that tore native children from their parents and sought to assimilate them.

“For the past year and a half, he (Layton) has spoken to me with regularity and great conviction on the need for this apology,” said Harper. “His advice, given across party lines and in confidence, has been persuasive and greatly appreciated.”

But Harper also deserves credit for delivering a heartfelt apology for this “sad chapter” in Canada’s history.

Kudos, too, to the Prime Minister for reversing his position of just 24 hours earlier and adopting Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s suggestion of allowing native leaders to respond to the apology inside the House of Commons. Their presence – including, memorably, National Chief Phil Fontaine in a full headdress – added to the solemnity of the occasion.

Fontaine was poetic in his response. “The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls,” he said. “This day will help us to put that pain behind us.”

The question now is: what next?

The apology was important and necessary, but it must not be “mistaken for closure,” as Star Ottawa columnist Jim Travers writes today. With so many of Canada’s aboriginal peoples living in Third World conditions, there is a huge agenda of unfinished business to address.

Here Harper’s actions belie his conciliatory words of yesterday. He has, for example, scrapped the Kelowna Accord, a deal worked out by his predecessor, Paul Martin, with aboriginal leaders and the provinces. The deal would have put $5 billion toward an assault on native poverty, including major improvements in schools, health care, housing and economic development. In their place, the Harper government has offered a grab bag of policies that do not add up to what was agreed to in Kelowna.

As well, Harper has sought to divide and conquer by finding fissures in the aboriginal ranks or to transfer blame to the provinces on matters like the ongoing Caledonia dispute.

If yesterday marks a turning point and the Harper government now turns its attention to helping the aboriginal peoples lift themselves out of poverty, it will have been worthwhile. If not, Harper’s fine rhetoric will rightly be dismissed as hollow.

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