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Harper's record belies any pledge to 'reconciliation' with First Nations

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Photo: flickr/Ben Powless

For more than a century, Canadians were ignorant of the fact that, as Daniel Schwartz reports for CBC, the chances of children dying in Indian residential schools were the same as for those who served in the Second World War.

Most Canadians did not know that tens of thousands of children were stolen away from their families, beaten when they spoke their own languages, forced into humiliating situations such as posing in a parody of "Indian" costumes for visiting dignitaries, fed inadequate food, housed in poorly heated dormitories, sexually abused, and generally treated not much better than slaves.

While all this was happening to the original inhabitants of this country -- and for Canadians over the age of 40 it was happening during their lifetimes -- the press did not report on any of it.

Nobody mentioned a word about the persecution of Indigenous children in parliament.

Civil society organizations and churches could spare not even one small drop of compassion for the victims.

Indeed, the churches were the main vehicles for this exercise in cultural genocide.

That term is no longer over the top. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin used it last week.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Canada's Indian residential schools uses that once loaded term, as well.

Murray Sinclair, the TRC chair, has said that what Canada did to so many of its First Nations children would today be considered a crime against humanity.

Canada's policy: 'move Indigenous people out of the way'

But the residential schools -- for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized in 2008 -- were, as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde pointed out on Monday, only part of the odious Canadian system that became a model for South African Apartheid.

The other main pillar of the system was the Indian Act of 1876, much of which is still the law today.

The essential purpose of the Act was to move Indigenous Canadians out of the way, as it were, and allow settlement of their lands and exploitation of their natural resources.

There was no thought of even the slightest compensation for Indigenous Canadians as they were herded into economically unviable "reserves" while outsiders exploited the minerals, trees, oil and gas, and agricultural potential of the lands they had occupied for millennia.

And while the prime minister may have apologized seven years ago, the actions of his government toward Canada's First Nations since then have been, for the most part, almost openly hostile.

The major Harper government legislative initiative on First Nations was the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, the now-shelved Bill C-33.

Early in their tenure, Harper and his series of Aboriginal affairs ministers signalled that they considered reforming First Nations education to be their main priority.

The Conservative government sought to focus on education as a way to encourage Indigenous participation in the economy. It was part of a push toward "self-reliance" for people, who, in Conservative eyes, had fallen into the "dependency trap."

Harper's government has had little interest in most of the other issues National Chief Bellegarde cited on Monday: addressing the drastic inadequacy of housing; closing the poverty gap; establishing an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; and, of vital importance, sharing resource revenue directly with Indigenous communities.

A record that speaks of near hostility to First Nations

When the Harper government eliminated or radically altered key legislation that protected the environment on which First Nations depend, such as the Fisheries and Navigable Waters Acts, and reduced to next to nothing the federal environmental review process for major projects, it did not have Indigenous rights and interests in mind.

Quite the contrary: Harper's government has quite proudly tilted toward the interests of major resource exploitation corporations, many of them foreign-owned.

Harper's rollback of protection for the environment and First Nations' rights gave birth to the Idle No More movement.

Education was one area where First Nations leaders thought there was at least a possibility of a meeting of minds with Harper's government.

What the government came up with was, however, a slap in the face to Indigenous Canadians, as Bellegarde describes it.

It is entirely disingenuous, Bellegarde argues, for the Harper government to say C-33 is about First Nations control. The bill does the opposite, the National Chief says. It puts all power into the hands of the minister of Aboriginal affairs.

In other words, it continues the paternalism of the Indian Act.

No genuine First Nations control in Bill C-33

One issue that Bellegarde raised was the need for a national First Nations educational entity, a sort of "Indigenous Ministry of Education," which would support isolated and poorly resourced Indigenous communities.

The government itself set up a National Panel to study First Nations education and make recommendations, which reported in 2012.

One of the Panel's key recommendations -- perhaps its most important -- was for a just such an educational governance entity. It called for a National Commission for First Nation Education that would "replace the responsibilities, other than funding, of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs."

Here at rabble, we reported, at the time, that creation of such a commission would be, in the National Panel's words, "historic." It would mean "that a significant responsibility will be transferred from a Government of Canada department to a co-created National Commission."

Bill C-33 does not in any way adopt this recommendation. Instead, it would create an advisory body to the minister, with no effective authority.

As the Harper government would have it, all power and all control would remain with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. There would be no "historic transfer of significant responsibility."

Now, we will hear solemn promises to follow up on the recommendations of the TRC.

National Chief Bellegarde says he remains an optimist.

He believes that when Canadians become better educated about the cruel history of this country's first peoples they will be ready to make big changes.

Based on the recent record of the Harper government it may be hard for many Indigenous Canadians to share that hope.


Photo: Used with permission from Ben Powless

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