We are a very large country, with… one of the longest-standing democratic regimes, unbroken democratic regimes, in history. We are one of the most stabile regimes in history. There are very few countries that can say for nearly 150 years they’ve had the same political system without any social breakdown, political upheaval or invasion. We are unique in that regard. We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers, but none of the things that threaten or bother them about the great powers.
-Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Speaking at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, PA
September 25, 2009
Sara MacIntyre, spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “[The comment] was really focused on the international financial scene.”
Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, the former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, also said the statement had been taken out of context: “It is important to consider the context of [Harper’s] comments last week. The prime minister sought to differentiate Canada’s history with that of past global empires with histories of colonialism. [Harper’s] apology for the tragedy of Indian residential schools last year clearly acknowledge the wrong doings and racist policies of Canada’s past.”
Not everyone is convinced. Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans said, “I am just shocked that someone would say something like that knowing the history of their own country. They tried to destroy a race of people.”
Michael Cachagee, executive director of National Residential School Survivors Society, said the prime minister’s statement undercut last year’s seminal residential school apology. “This man speaks with a forked tongue,” said Cachagee. “He has mud on his face on this one. Colonial pie.”
Ghislain Picard, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, said, “Denying the history of colonialism in Canada is like denying the holocaust.”
National Chief Shawn Atleo of Canada’s leading native organization, the Assembly of First Nations, said:
The current line of response from federal officials that the Prime Minister’s remarks were taken ‘out of context’ is simply not good enough for someone in his position…. The effects of colonialism remain today. It is the attitude that fueled the residential schools; the colonial Indian Act that displaces traditional forms of First Nations governance; the theft of Indian lands and forced relocations of First Nations communities; the criminalization and suppression of First Nations languages and cultural practices; the chronic under-funding of First Nations communities and programs; and the denial of Treaty and Aboriginal rights, even though they are recognized in Canada’s Constitution.
Internationally, Canada has been scrutinized and harshly criticized for its treatment of Indigenous peoples and failure to respect Aboriginal and Treaty rights. Canada is increasingly isolated as one of only three nations in the world that has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that rejects the doctrine of colonialism.
The Prime Minister’s statement speaks to the need for greater public education about First Nations and Canadian history. It may be possible to use this moment to begin bridging this gulf of misunderstanding. The future cannot be built without due regard to the past, without reconciling the incredible harm and injustice with a genuine commitment to move forward in truth and respect.
First Nations leaders and Canadians call on the Prime Minister to honour [last year’s] apology and to make clear the path to reconciliation.