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An insincere apology

It hurts people to think so -- and I truly regret if it hurts anyone for me to say so here -- but the Prime Minister’s apology for residential schools was, at best, insincere. That is the kindest word I can find.

More likely he was lying. Or, he didn’t understand the words he wrote. Or, worse yet, he meant them in a very specific way. But certainly, he was insincere.

The apology was a result of the out of court settlement secured by survivors of the residential school atrocity. It was agreed that an apology was a necessary part of the commemoration events for the settlement. This had been arranged with the Martin government before the 2006 election that brought Stephen Harper to power.

In the weeks leading up to the apology, I was working at the Assembly of First Nations, busy organizing the second National Day of Action. That was when Shannen Koostachin spoke from the steps of Parliament Hill about growing up without a proper school. It was quite a moving event in itself. But Shannen is gone now and there is still no school where she grew up.

By late May of 2008, the Harper government had already reneged on the Kelowna Accord and relations with Indigenous peoples were strained. There was some reluctance on the part of the Harper government to provide the apology, certainly they were uncomfortable with many of the details, and these were being negotiated. People on the other side were afraid he might renege on this promise as well.

Former National Chief Phil Fontaine had other people working on the residential schools issue and I was relieved that they were there. As someone who is not a survivor, I could not provide the same level of insight nor truly appreciate the effect these negotiations had on people. Instead, I was glad to be able to offer whatever assistance was asked and leave the rest to others more qualified than me. 

At the same time, I was volunteering as co-chair of the NDP Aboriginal Commission and Jack Layton would call or e-mail with the occasional question. We mostly talked about how he could best help without making the apology a partisan issue and what he might say on the day in the House. 

So, I heard some of the concerns of these two men -- never sharing the confidences of one with the other -- and provided my best advice when I was asked. They were both hoping for a sincere expression of regret and honest commitment to change.

June 11th came and the event was solemn and respectful and carried a unique power. It was a profound moment in the history of Indigenous relations in this country. Canadians were moved deeply by what we saw and heard.

And these words, spoken by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were the most important, the ones we were there to hear: “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”

This was an incredibly important step toward reconciliation, we thought. 

Yet, in light of the fact that the policy of assimilation has continued over the five years since that day, we are left with questions.

Did the Prime Minister misunderstand what he was saying? 

I was told he penned much of the speech himself, so it would be strange if he were misled by his own chosen words.

Was he in fact saying that “this” policy of assimilation was wrong, but others, such as the ones he intended to continue implementing, were not? 

Because we have seen such lawyerly, miserly interpretations from his government on other issues, this interpretation is not impossible, but it is a disgusting thought.

Or was he simply lying? 

Apologize today, but continue doing what you say is wrong.

Some people will object to the premise. They will say that what we have seen over the past seven years of Harper government policies is not a continued attempt at assimilation. 

In response, I could provide statistics on increasing poverty, third world conditions on reserve, violence and suicide. I could point out how the Government of Canada continues to play divide and conquer, finding “coalitions of the willing,” how it treats Indigenous governments as administrative agencies of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, how it leads in the deliberate undermining of confidence in Indigenous governments through insinuations of corruption and mismanagement. But the facts do not sway Mr. Harper’s defenders. Instead, they point to the theories of their esteemed expert and Harper mentor, Tom Flanagan.

As an aside, how sad it is that Flanagan is now a pariah only for his comments on child pornography, while his racist book made him a hero to many in the current government.

I could point to the words of Indigenous leaders who have called the Prime Minister out on his policies of assimilation, or direct people to academic studies and policy analyses saying the same. But the words of Indigenous people would not matter, unless they come from those few who support Mr. Harper’s policies, stalwarts such as Senator Brazeau for example. That is, before the criminal charges.

The fact is that it doesn’t matter what cogent arguments or clear evidence is offered. Theirs is an ideology so blinkered that supporters cannot see themselves in the mirror. So I will put the issue another way.

Identify a possible future where Indigenous communities are stronger, governments more independent, cultures more secure, languages thrive, and Indigenous people are happier and healthier, that does not rely on assimilation.

If that can be done in a manner consistent with the Prime Minister’s policies on this issue, then the apology stands. But, if it cannot -- and I strongly assert that it cannot -- then the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that it was, at best, insincere.

On the fourth anniversary of the apology, National Chief Shawn Atleo worried that the words were ringing hollow and said we were at a turning point in the relationship. He was right. It has turned for the worse. 

The Idle No More movement continues to deepen and grow, children march thousands of kilometres to be heard in Ottawa, we head toward a “sovereignty summer” and whatever action that may mean on the ground. 

Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Wilton Littlechild, a former M.P. in the Mulroney government, says anger is growing.

Yet, as I pointed out in a previous blog, signs are that Mr. Harper intends to continue to provoke the situation.

As children’s rights advocate Dr. Cindy Blackstock has said, “reconciliation means not saying sorry twice.”

If the relationship continues to deteriorate, if the policy of assimilation is not abandoned once and for all, and if actions in response create deeper divisions among us, will Mr. Harper apologize to Indigenous people and all Canadians for what he has done? 

And if he does, would any of us have reason to believe him?

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