OTTAWA — Four years after Stephen Harper offered an unfettered apology to aboriginal peoples for residential schools, the prime minister is at a turning point in his relationship with First Nations, says National Chief Shawn Atleo.
Harper can either take major, collaborative action to erase the deep and lingering effects of a school system that separated 150,000 kids from their families, Atleo said, or he can persist in chipping away at policy with small, unilateral measures and making grandiose promises that amount to little else besides more procedures.
“We’re faced with a real moment of reckoning here,” Atleo said in an interview on the fourth anniversary of the apology.
“The rate and pace of change is too slow.”
On June 11, 2008, Harper stood in the House of Commons and delivered an emotional, historic speech that took full responsibility for government attempts to assimilate aboriginal children, causing great harm that has lasted for generations.
“There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again,” Harper said.
“You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time, and in a very real sense we are now joining you on this journey.”
To commemorate the fourth anniversary, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan unveiled a stained-glass window by Metis artist Christi Belcourt that will eventually be installed in the House of Commons.
“I think its symbolism is just fine. What’s really required is action. Real change,” said Atleo, warning that the First Nations community’s patience with discussions about poverty, housing, resource-sharing and education is wearing thin.
Atleo is campaigning for a second term as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in a race where his critics say he has not been tough enough on the Harper government.
He said the government can’t afford to alienate a major source of labour that lives on top of Canada’s ample natural resources at a time when Ottawa has made resource extraction a top priority.
Duncan, however, says history cannot be undone overnight.
“You have to take a step back,” he said in an interview. “We, I think, have many things to celebrate.”
Duncan pointed to compensation for former residential school students, the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encourages healing among survivors, as well as increased funding for child welfare and education.
“I’ve talked to many, many people for whom the apology was life-changing. It’s pulled many families together,” Duncan said.
“Of course, it hasn’t fixed everything. This was a terrible chapter in Canadian history.”