OTTAWA — In many ways, this was a moment of quintessential Canadian déjà vu.
There we all were again, sitting in the National Press Theatre. Joe Clark, Paul Martin and former Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi, among others, decrying the misunderstanding, neglect and betrayal that has marked our country’s relationship with our First Nations.
“As you can see, I’m getting old,” said Mercredi, speaking for many.
The two former prime ministers are hardly kids, either. They’re not at the stage of life in which one usually contemplates starting over, but there they were, calling for a “new partnership” between Canada and our aboriginal population.
They call it Canadians for a New Partnership and my hyperactive inner cynic kept welling up, telling me I had heard it all before, had seen it all before and the last thing we needed was more dialogue and more process.
But I kept the cynicism at bay.
If Clark (75), Martin (76) and Mercredi (68), three Canadians who have earned the right to a retirement that would keep them far away from the old National Press Building, still cared, still felt they could give of themselves for this issue, they deserved an audience.
Clark and Martin, regardless of your politics, wear the tags of “right honourable” with distinction. Both should be better remembered for their senior cabinet portfolios than their brief times at 24 Sussex Dr., but this duo is reminiscent of the unlikely alliance forged south of the border by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
How they would get to this new partnership is fuzzy. They don’t have the budget to effect change. They have no levers of government to pull. They are hardly grassroots. They want to bring others aboard for this dialogue, a concept that is both ephemeral and purely Canadian.
But you listen because they are among a company of elders.
Their members include their leader, Stephen Kakfwi, a residential school survivor and former premier of the Northwest Territories, Mary Simon, the former president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine, former governor general Michaëlle Jean, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, former Ontario premier and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, Justice Murray Sinclair, who oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, former Manitoba lieutenant-governor Yvon Dumont and conductor and composer John Kim Bell.
They have a number of young “emerging leaders” in tow, but right now the gravitas is being provided by the pack of names with “former” attached to their titles.
They believe we may be at a tipping point in our relationship with First Nations. There are continued calls for an inquiry or a roundtable to probe missing and murdered aboriginal women, government efforts to improve aboriginal education are at an impasse, resource projects are ratcheting up tensions and there is a sense of foreboding that the public suffering aired at the Truth and Reconciliation commission may ultimately be ignored.
They were careful not to brand it as such, but their appearance could be seen as both an indictment of the Harper government (although Kakfwi met with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt) and the divided, largely dysfunctional Assembly of First Nations.
The Idle No More movement of young, impatient aboriginals that dominated the winter of 2012-13 gave rise to this effort and although they deny they are being political, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau missed that memo. He issued a statement endorsing the partnership and reminding voters of Martin’s work on the Kelowna Accord that was “promptly discarded” by the Conservative government.
“This is not pie in the sky,” said Martin.
“This is not just a lot of pretty words.”
Clark argued that this partnership is needed because we live in a country — and a world — that is increasingly disengaged from politics, and increasingly of the belief that the aboriginal relationship cannot be changed.
“This is a highly possible dream,” Clark said.
Martin came at the need differently — he says that over the past couple of years, in his many speaking engagements on the issue, Canadians have come to believe that the condition in which our aboriginal population lives is intolerable, a belief “that runs very deep in Canadian society.’’
Maybe it’s just more talk with familiar names.
But when some of our former leaders decide that this issue still deserves their efforts, only the most cynical would not listen. And if they can force this dialogue onto the agenda in a federal election year, we all benefit.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.