Will there be truth and reconciliation this fall?
By Bill Phillips
Over the last year or so, pundits near and far have bemusedly bemoaned the timing of the Mike Duffy trial.
The fear, of course, was that the trial would affect the federal election. There was even a hint last fall that Stephen Harper would call a spring election to avoid the skeletons that will come out of that morass. It didn’t happen.
As it turns out, there was a bigger issue lurking in the winds for which the timing sucked, at least for the federal Conservatives.
This week’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report could eclipse the Duffy trial in terms of affecting the federal election.
It all depends on what the Conservatives do in response to the huge report containing 94 recommendations. Rather than jump on the bandwagon, like some of those who would like to take Harper’s job, the prime minister has remained non-committal on the recommendations. They want to have a good look at them first, said Harper. That may be a prudent course of action, however, Harper and the Conservatives’ track record with the First Nations has been up and down.
One of Harper’s first actions as prime minister back in 2006 was to scuttle the Kelowna Accord. Of course, that was engineered by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, so it had to go.
Then came the federal government’s 2008 apology for the residential school system, hailed as one of the watermark moments of Harper’s time at 24 Sussex. Harper certainly got it right there and the apology was a giant step forward. If he knew it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to resolve the issue, he might have had second thoughts.
While there are close to 100 recommendations with some major, some minor, there are couple that have emerged this week as possible lightning rods for the Conservatives.
The first is the call for a national inquiry into the high number of missing and murdered First Nations women in Canada. The Highway of Tears, that rolls right through the heart of Prince George, is a part of a bigger national issue.
Harper and the Conservatives, however, seem adamant that a public inquiry is not on the table. Harper made headlines earlier this year when he stated that each case of a murdered or missing First Nations woman or girl is a separate case and that they are not linked. While that may be true, he kind of missed the point that a disproportionately high number of First Nations women and children get murdered and/or go missing. That’s the issue.
But the Conservatives made it pretty clear that a inquiry isn’t in the works. When Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair read the recommendation calling for a national inquiry, the room erupted into a standing ovation … all except one person right at the front of the room. That person was no other than Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
Some might view his actions as insulting, but one thing is certain, it was a clear message that the federal government isn’t keen on a national inquiry.
The other hot button issue is the federal government’s reticence to endorse the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People. When the U.N. passed the resolution in 2007, 143 countries supported it with four voting against … Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia.
Harper has said the declaration is an “aspirational” document, but maintains it run contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, in itself, enshrines aboriginal and treaty rights. More specifically, the federal government is concerned that the U.N. declaration may result in First Nations consent being required on matters of public policy and that it may open the door to re-opening land claims that have already been settled.
The question, as we head into full election-mode, is whether the government’s action, or inaction, on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report will stir voters this fall.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at email@example.com