On June 11 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and offered apologies on behalf of the Canadian government for the hideous Residential School program – a program with the purpose, in the words of its most ardent supporters, was to “civilize” First Nations, Inuit, and Métis populations. It was a system of cultural cleansing with a sole finality to destroy the remains of any Indigenous way of life and thus allowing for their complete assimilation.
The apology was supposedly a watershed moment in Canadian history, a moment which would allow for renewed dialogue, a dignified correspondence between the ‘saviours’ of such a system, their children, and the non-aboriginals populations of Canada. The Conservative government at the time, as it still does today, boasts about the historic moment as proof of their efforts to build a stronger partnership with Indigenous communities.
Outside of the universe of smoke and mirrors, of the political spin and lip-service that is Ottawa, the apology put forward by the Conservative government is a chef d’oeuvre of hypocrisy and the paragon of why the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous communities is not just broken, it’s non-existent.
A sincere apology is first and foremost a lesson and promise. It is an acknowledgement that our past ways were inhumane, cruel, and racist, and a statement that from this day forth the federal government would fight to eradicate the remainders of colonialism and neo-colonialism in all of its forms. Unfortunately six years after, the Canadian government’s apology seems void of any concrete steps to change the nature of our relationship with Indigenous communities, much to the contrary in fact.
The honeymoon period following the apology was short-lived. Within a few years of the statement the Conservative government was handed a majority and since then, it’s been a race to the bottom when it comes to the state of aboriginal/federal government relations.
In the past few years of Conservative majority rule there have been an incredible amount of low points when it comes to this government’s respect of Indigenous rights, and especially with regards to their unalienable right to self-determination and sovereignty within their own communities. For some right-wing pundits – read Ezra Levant – the storyline is the following: Conservative government pushes for natural resource extraction on Native land , Indigenous peoples oppose extraction, the Conservatives pushes forward with it because that’s what’s best for the economy and what’s best for the economy is what’s best for the aboriginal peoples of Canada … But when bill C-33, or the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act (in good Conservative newspeak) is thrown into the mix, the “prosperity” argument that the ‘neo-cons’ construct to justify their willing incapacity to uphold treaty rights and their rampant violation of aboriginal sovereignty doesn’t apply.
Bill C-33 might have stemmed from a good intention (even though that is very doubtable), but a very misguided one to say the least. Bill C-33 is the legal framework for an education system for First Nations communities drawn in Ottawa without the consent or the input of First Nations – a framework that would impose an educational system in which the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another isn’t important, and the only objective is to “integrate”.
In the words of its proponents, it brings First Nations youth into the Canadian economy, aka assimilation by other means. The best manifestation of that is the fact that the teaching of First Nations languages doesn’t even have a place in the bill. This new education system would answer to the needs of the market, the needs of Canadian employers, not to the aspirations of First Nation communities wanting to make sure their cultures and languages are passed on to the next generation.
On the other hand, contrary to Conservative belief, 100% First Nations’ controlled education systems are the models that work the best. The province of Nova Scotia is the best example of a 100% controlled First Nations education program.
Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey has been an incredible success story. Today Nova Scotia has the highest rate of First Nations high school graduation in the entire country at a staggering 88% compared to 35% nation-wide. Statistics such as these put the Conservative government in a very awkward situation, because they prove that self-determination works, which puts the Conservative government’s entire economic plan in porte-à-faux.
Indigenous communities throughout Canada have been on the frontlines of the fight against the ruthless exploration and pillage of Canadian natural resources, which only benefit multinational corporations at the expense of the rest of us. We non-Indigenous peoples of Canada are indebted to these communities historically in many ways, but we are ever so indebted for the struggle they lead against the destruction of our natural wealth in this day and age.
This Conservative government is truly afraid of what Indigenous communities have to teach all of us, primarily that our greatest wealth is our environment. We cannot eat money, and that’s why the Conservative government is the main obstacle on the path towards a strong autonomous Aboriginal educational system in Canada. The Conservatives are scared of an educational system that promotes an alternative worldview in which prosperity is measured in environmental and social terms, not economic ones.
If we want to build a truly prosperous Canada, we have much to learn from our Indigenous sisters and brothers.