OTTAWA — The head of a six-year study of Canada’s residential schools legacy used Wednesday’s closing ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to urge a high and urgent priority on reconciliation efforts.
Justice Murray Sinclair, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the dark history of Canada’s residential schools provides lessons that go far beyond the school experience itself.
“We ended up learning about, and therefore writing about, much more than residential schools, for this history is about so much more than just schools,” Sinclair told a ceremony at Rideau Hall — the Governor General’s residence and symbol of the Crown’s legal responsibilities to Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.
A summary of the commission’s conclusions, including its description of a “cultural genocide” and the estimate deaths of more than 6,000 children, was released Tuesday along with an exhaustive list of 94 recommendations.
“My fellow commissioners and I are convinced that for healing and reconciliation to happen in this country, such work must be done as a high — and in some cases urgent — priority,” said Sinclair, as Harper looked on.
“And it must be done in partnership.”
It’s the question that now hangs over the $60-million class action settlement and the commission it spawned.
As Gov.-Gen. David Johnston himself put it Wednesday: “This is a moment to ask ourselves, ‘Where do we go from here?'”
The prime minister did not address the gathering at Rideau Hall, but on Tuesday in the House of Commons he suggested that his government has already moved on addressing aboriginal concerns in the seven years since Harper issued an historic apology from the government of Canada.
The commission report’s authors have a different perspective, and Harper’s political adversaries are quickly jumping into the divide.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said righting the wrongs done to Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples starts with respect.
An NDP government would put a “filter” on all decisions that it makes to ensure every action respects First Nations’ treaty rights, inherent rights and Canada’s international obligations to indigenous peoples, Mulcair said Wednesday.
He said an NDP government would undertake as a top priority a “vast consultation” on improving the quality and accessibility of education for aboriginal children.
The Conservative government proposed an ambitious aboriginal education initiative but it foundered after some First Nations leaders complained they hadn’t been adequately consulted.
Mulcair acknowledged the difficulty of getting agreement among some 600 First Nations, but accused Harper of being unwilling to do the hard work to strike a deal.
“Mr. Harper likes to boast that the decisions he has to make are tough decisions. Well, this is a tough one and it requires hard work but it requires putting people around the same table,” he said.
It’s unconscionable that aboriginal children “receive systematically 30 per cent less than other Canadian kids” for education, Mulcair added.
“So that’s easy to fix. You can get to that but you can’t impose it. It has to be the result of a vast consultation.”
He also reiterated his promise to launch within 100 days of taking office a royal commission of inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.
— With files from Joan Bryden
The Canadian Press