Shameful, indeed, the part of our nation’s history that Prime Minister Harper yesterday referred to as “dark”. The government has finally admitted to stealing the culture and spirit from the over 150,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly made to attend so-called Residential Schools over the past century and a half.
CUPE acknowledges the importance of this long-overdue apology from the Government of Canada to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people and sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper accordingly. Public admission of injustices endured by marginalized communities at the hands of their government are a rare step towards righting past wrongs. In the case of Canada, this apology may well be a crucial step towards the reconciliation necessary to heal deep wounds and forge a more equal and just future.
We have a long way to go towards correcting the situation described so eloquently by Prime Minister Harper and Opposition Party Leaders during yesterday’s ceremony at the House of Commons. Perhaps the racism perpetrated towards the First Peoples of this land can never be undone. There are, however, countless measures to be undertaken to get us closer to addressing the disparities that exist between and among us.
The picture to emerge from our “dark” history with Aboriginal peoples is painfully clear. The conditions in which we have forced them to live are a national shame. In over 100 First Nations communities across Canada, unsafe water must be boiled before it can be used. Fifty-four percent of Aboriginal children live in housing that Statistics Canada deems substandard. One in four children in First Nations communities lives in poverty.
So while the historical significance of yesterday’s apology cannot be overstated, the time for words is no more. The new day signaled by Prime Minister Harper’s gesture of good will shall now be measured by actions.
The Harper Government may have stumbled into the spotlight by initiating yesterday’s “achievement of the impossible”, as AFN (Assembly of First Nations) National Chief Phil Fontaine put it.
Aboriginal peoples and Canadians should, however, remain wary about where this gesture will lead, and how. Whether or not it should be relied upon as a symbol of the government’s commitment to true and sustainable support for the needs of First Nations remains to be seen.
So far, the Harper Conservatives have:
- tossed out the Kelowna Accord, the first agreement between Canada and First Nations people that actually resulted from all parties being represented at the table and stood the best chance of succeeding after all the failed negotiations that have come before;
- refused to sign onto the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, putting Canada’s reputation as a human rights champion on the line internationally and calling into question the Harper government’s credibility as a genuine proponent of First Nations rights here at home;
- scaled back the funding available to equality-seeking women’s groups that have done public awareness and lobbying on behalf of the little-known matter of the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in this country;
National Chief Fontaine stated yesterday: “We are all part of one garment of destiny.” CUPE will continue to stand in solidarity with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in their struggle for equality and respect in Canada.
Alongside our National Aboriginal Council and on behalf of our 570,000 members across Canada who are active allies in the struggle for the rights of First Nations people, CUPE calls on the Harper government to immediately:
- move on the Assembly of First Nations’ “7 Point Plan for Change” for meaningful steps towards addressing the needs of First Nations people
- increase funding, awareness, and action on the Sisters in Spirit campaign of the Native Women’s Association of Canada;
- revive the Kelowna Accord, declare a commitment to bring it to effect, and reconvene the same participants to negotiate and oversee the process
CUPE could not be more proud to be a part of it.