OTTAWA -- Two years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to aboriginals for the legacy of residential schools, there is little evidence the government has put any action behind its words, a national aboriginal leader says.
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo said the apology was an important step to draw attention to residential schools and the ensuing struggles for generations of aboriginals in Canada. However, Atleo said little has been done since to suggest the apology was more than just words.
He said a number of the government's recent actions are not in keeping with the spirit of the apology. Those include challenging a human rights complaint about underfunding of native child-welfare agencies and cutting off all funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The latter paid for various counselling and therapy programs for survivors of residential schools. The foundation was not funded in this year's budget.
Atleo said the government's caginess on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is also suspect. Canada was one of only four countries that did not sign the accord in 2007. But in its throne speech last March, the government said it had heard from aboriginals that the accord was important to them and therefore Canada would give the declaration qualified support.
However, in a recent submission to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over child-welfare funding on reserves, the federal government said its position on the declaration had not changed.
Atleo said adopting the UN declaration would suggest Canada understands what it needs to do to honour treaties and ensure First Nations have equal access to education and employment.
"Education was used as a weapon against us (with residential schools)," Atleo said. "Now education has to be the tool that facilitates reconciliation."
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the apology kick-started a long journey towards healing, which continues when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission holds its first event in Winnipeg next week.
He noted the TRC was delayed due to problems with the first commissioners, who resigned and had to be replaced. But he said nobody should have expected instant gratification from the apology. He said people can't expect someone who has been abused for years to "just turn the page and forget it."