Five years ago on June 11, 2008, a rare “sorry” was uttered from the lips of the Prime Minister of Canada. Sorry for Canada’s part in creating the residential school system, said Stephen Harper. Sorry for Canada’s policy of assimilation, which “was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” Sorry that Indian children were forcibly removed from their communities and their families. Sorry that they were inadequately fed, clothed and housed, deprived of care and nurturing.
“We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow and we apologize for having done this… we apologize for failing to protect you.”
Aboriginal people crammed into halls across Canada to watch that speech on television and computer screens, streamed live from the floor of the House of Commons. People wept openly that day, remembering all they had lost and feeling that finally Ottawa was getting it; understanding the pain they had carried, the potential that would never be realized.
“Doesn’t mean a goddamned thing,” said one man Windspeaker spoke to that day about Harper’s apology on behalf of Canada. It will change nothing in how Ottawa treats us, the man said. And that bitter statement has been proved true, over and over and over again in how Ottawa’s Conservative government continues its own legacy of abuse of first peoples.
As we go to press we learn from a study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that half of all First Nations children live in poverty. They are impoverished not only economically—three times the national average—but in the services that are provided to remote and isolated communities and by inferior infrastructure.
As we go to press this month, we learn of the massive and unexpected funding cuts to 40-plus Aboriginal organization, including the Assembly of First Nations. Ottawa will cut that one organization by $1.7 million, only funding projects, it says, that have objectives the governing Conservatives are in agreement with.
The cuts will have an impact on the policy and analysis work the AFN does on a number of files, including housing, infrastructure, water, treaties, and education. One wonders if it’s payback for the AFN’s alliance with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society that has been kicking Canada’s butt in the fight for equitable funding for children in care on-reserve.
Canada has frustrated all attempts at getting to the bottom of claims that Ottawa discriminates against on-reserve children in care. During hearings it was revealed that Ottawa failed to disclose upwards of 50,000 documents to the caring society’s legal team. Ottawa has stood on its head in its attempts to stop the human rights tribunal that is hearing the society’s complaint. Ottawa has spent $3 million on legal jockeying to keep the hearings from going forward, it has been reported. On July 15, however, the hearings will resume, this time on a complaint of retaliation.
The denials also come regarding Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve education. And Ottawa fails to acknowledge the growing population of First Nations by keeping a firm cap on transfers without regard to ballooning demographic pressures.
As we go to press there is much talk of a hot summer of protest. Idle No More is morphing into a Sovereignty Summer campaign. Take time to check on any events in or near your communities. This government is as hard-headed as it is hard-hearted. A message has to be sent clearly to Canada’s government that Aboriginal people aren’t going to put up with its lip service anymore. It’s time for some real action on important issues. Not just talk, talk, talk, talk.
“Sorry” just doesn’t cut it anymore.