great speech. got substance

Last week, Canada’s Conservative government did something quite unexpected — the right thing.

Last week, Canada’s Conservative government did something quite unexpected — the right thing.

In making a formal apology to aboriginal victims of the residential school system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took an important step on the long road to correcting one of the great evils of colonialism.

Harper didn’t shirk the facts.

In his speech, he recognized that Canada’s policy “to kill the Indian in the child” was “wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.”

He laid out the horrors of residential school, and apologized for each in turn — inadequate food, clothing and housing, the prohibition of native languages and cultural practices, the fact that many children died in the schools.

He admitted that “the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative” and had a “lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language,” and acknowledged the horror of “the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.”

The Conservatives also did the right thing, however unwillingly, when they agreed at the very last minute to allow aboriginal leaders to be in Parliament to hear and respond to the apology. Without them, the occasion would have been much less meaningful.

Once allowed to speak, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine made sure white politicians didn’t lay claim to the day, giving credit instead where it belongs.

“Brave survivors, through telling their stories, have stripped white supremacy of its legitimacy,” he told the assembly. “Never again will this House consider us the Indian Problem just for being who we are. We are, and always have been, an indispensable part of the Canadian identity.”

Apologies are cheap, and solutions cost money, as aboriginal leaders have pointed out.

Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, called on Harper to explain “what is going to be provided?” to make up for the damage done by generations of “major human rights violations.”

The answer?

Well, Harper didn’t say, but let’s not get our hopes too high.

Shortly before the speeches were made, a rising star in the Conservative caucus was on the radio uttering a patently racist denunciation of the whole process, and in particular decrying the expense that would follow.

On Thursday, the day after the historic apology, Pierre Poilievre, MP for Nepean-Carleton and a parliamentary secretary in the Harper cabinet, rose in the House to apologize for remarks he had made the previous day during a radio interview in his home riding.

Poilievre is an influential young Conservative who is clearly being groomed for a future minister’s post.

His roots go back to the Reform Party in Calgary, and his wife is a senior adviser to Stephen Harper.

According to the Chronicle Herald’s Ottawa columnist Stephen Maher, “Mr. Harper and his inner circle have been nurturing Poilievre’s career for years.”

Here’s some of what Poilievre said on the radio: “Now, along with this apology, comes another $4 billion in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools over those years.

“Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask: ‘Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?’ My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance.”

Apparently it’s not far from Ottawa-Nepean to Parliament Hill, because shortly after the interview Poilievre was in the House applauding the speeches, having just effectively dismissed aboriginal Canadians as lazy, shiftless and dependant, and implying that Canada owes them nothing.

The underlying racism in Poilievre’s remarks couldn’t be much clearer, and the fact that he’s still a member of cabinet means, at the very least that, whatever the prime minister might say on the floor of the House, this government doesn’t take racism seriously.

It may not seem like a big thing to say ‘sorry’ after generations of broken lives, but an apology is an acknowledgement, and acknowledgement is important.

Harper’s speech acknowledged that terrible social ills in aboriginal communities are a direct result of government policy.

This will make it much harder in the future to defend other colonial policies, such as assigning native lands to mining companies without proper consultation.

June 11 was a great day for Canada.

We took a step toward truly confronting our racist and colonial past — and present.

The next day, when Harper failed to fire Poilievere, some of that greatness slipped away.

For the full text of Harper’s apology, visit

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.