5 years after Residential School Apology First Nations still waiting for progress.

Five years ago Canada officially apologized for the legacy of Residential Schools whose culture of abuse and neglect left permanent scars that echo through First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities to this day.   The apology was the high point of Stephen Harper’s relationship with First Nations.  Despite the Prime Minister’s promising language at the Crown’s First Nation gathering in January 2012, the legislative work of his government has been a provocative one way street that doesn’t match the optimism of the apology.

It was hoped that a move towards real reconciliation would set the table for better progress on many long-standing issues with the potential to chip away at the imbalance that sets too many of these communities apart from the circumstance that most Canadians enjoy.  It was believed we could embark on a new relationship built on respect, trust, and most importantly, open and honest dialogue.

All that changed with the election of a Conservative majority government.  They have pursued a heavy handed agenda with First Nations that is rooted in opinion instead of a commonly agreed upon path.  The final push to the end of this parliamentary sitting has seen the government cut off debate and hammer through legislation that has received consistent opposition and criticism from First Nations. 

This is no way to mark National Aboriginal History Month (June) or National Aboriginal Day (June 21st).  Keep in mind the strong and vocal opposition to last year’s budget implementation bills when gauging the level of dissatisfaction with the government’s ongoing agenda for First Nations.  In this sitting of Parliament there have been government Bills that affect how these communities organize and run themselves despite the fact that First Nations are autonomous.  In addition to that there is a Private Members’ Bill that seeks to unilaterally undo sections of the Indian Act.  

There is wide agreement that the Indian Act must be dismantled, but the process and the solution it proposes is the problem in this instance – as is the case with the government’s Bills. It is understandable that First Nations are very upset with this government who consistently refuse to meet their duty to consult. 

The relationship between the government and First Nations is significantly one-sided.  This sets back relations that were once buoyed by the historic Residential School Apology.  As Jack Layton said at that time, “reconciliation must be built through positive steps that show respect and restore trust. This apology must not be an end; it must be a beginning.” 

Surely it is time to return to the spirit of that statement, roll up our sleeves and find a path that works for First Nations and Canada.