If they are serious about creating a new relationship with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples, Elijah Harper thinks Canadians need to stop relying on their elected representatives to do the job. They need to start the job of educating fellow citizens about the past if they want to build a better future.
The Cree leader was keynote speaker at an Ottawa conference staged to promote the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission has a five-year mandate to learn the truth about what happened in Indian residential schools and to promote reconciliation and renewed relationships between First Peoples and Canadians based on mutual understanding and respect.
A survivor of three Manitoba residential schools, Harper told his audience that Canadian governments have had countless opportunities to create what some members of Kairos – the coalition of churches that organized the event – refer to as “right relationships” with First Peoples.
He mentioned the $60 million Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples – a five-year exercise in the wake of the 1990 standoff between 3500 Canadian troops and 63 Mohawks near Oka, Quebec that produced over a million words, in five volumes, and put forward 440 recommendations. Harper challenged anyone in attendance to point to one recommendation that has been a federal government action item.
He might have mentioned the 1998 Statement of Reconciliation, an apology of sorts for the horrific abuse visited upon the 150,000 children forced to attend residential schools. The statement – which conceded that governments in Canada had acted with “attitudes of racial superiority” towards First Peoples – was delivered by then Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart in a parliamentary committee room. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who as Indian Affairs Minister in 1969 tabled the infamous White Paper that proposed to erase treaty rights, was not even in attendance.
Harper did refer to the June 11, 2008 apology delivered in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who conceded that “The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.”
But, he reminded us, more conciliatory-sounding words from Canadian political leaders have done little to mend the damage created by a system that was established to “kill the Indian in the child”, and that has left a horrific legacy of socio-economic damage in its wake: over-representation of First Peoples in negative statistics dealing with poverty, unemployment, diabetes, and youth suicide, and under-representation in statistics about education completion rates and economic opportunities and success.
A former Member of Parliament himself, Harper was in the gallery on the day of the historic Harper apology, seated directly above Speaker Peter Milliken. What he remembers more than the Prime Minister’s speech was what happened when a delegation of national aboriginal leaders were allowed to enter the Chamber and sit in the Centre Aisle. National Chief Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor, had negotiated the opportunity to respond to the apology
“The Speaker got out of his seat and sat on a step leading up to it,” Harper recalls. “This meant that the House of Commons was not in session – they were sitting in committee. This was not done when foreign leaders like Bill Clinton were allowed to address Parliament.
“This ignored our nation-to-nation relationship,” said Harper.
“We were still being treated like second-class citizens.”
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.