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This article was published 2/6/2015 (1970 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA – In April 2005, former National Chief Phil Fontaine was invited to be part of the Canadian delegation to attend the funeral of Pope Jean Paul II in Rome.
It came at a time when Fontaine had been pressing then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin to address the residential schools legacy and the barriers to prosperity in front of aboriginal people.
Fontaine, now 70, told the crowd at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission today it was that trip which finally pulled Martin on board.
"Up until that point we had met up with great resistance from Canada," he said.
Over a dinner at a restaurant in Rome, Fontaine was sitting across from Martin, and at the same table as Stephen Harper, who was then the Leader of the Opposition. Jason Kenney, now the minister of defence, and Rob Nicholson, now the minister of foreign affairs, who were both then MPs in Harper’s shadow cabinet, were also there.
Martin, said Fontaine, did what he often did, and peppered Fontaine with questions.
"We were having this incredible conversation, the prime minister and I, and as he was wont to do, he was asking me all kind of questions again."
The questions were about residential schools, Fontaine’s experience in them, and why it was so important to aboriginal peoples to have an agreement to resolve their legacy.
And after a while of back and forth, Martin looked at Fontaine and said to him, "Phil, we’re going to get this done."
Returning to Canada, Fontaine said it was immediately apparent that Martin meant what he had said.
"The attitude of federal officials, justice lawyers, changed so dramatically it was like night and day. And the mantra became, ‘and then the Pope died.'"
The story brought howls of delight and laughter from the survivors and officials in the room at a downtown Ottawa hotel, where Fontaine was accepting the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on behalf of all survivors.
It was an interesting contrast to the words spoken moments earlier by TRC Chair Murray Sinclair, who inferred the government in power now has not given similar direction to its civil service when it comes to reconciliation.
Sinclair said he believed Harper was sincere in 2008 when he apologized, but that sincerity did not trickle down to the policies and programs of the government and didn’t infiltrate the government bureaucrats running them.
"I believed him when he said what he said. The unfortunate thing is I’m not sure the government bureaucrats who were responsible for carrying out government policy were taught what the words mean. We need to ensure they understand the meaning of those words and then carry them out. And that requires leadership."
It was one of several instances where Sinclair clearly showed an unease at the actions and words of the current government. He was highly critical of Canada for being the only government which "shamefully" objected last fall when the UN wanted to reaffirm the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Canada only signed on to that declaration under pressure and with the caveat it was non-binding.
Sinclair also said this morning he doesn’t believe the current government is "is willing to make good on its claim" that it wants to reconcile with aboriginal people.
And when he was asked what he expected the government to do given its recent actions and words, Sinclair was matter of fact.
"You have to remember we are writing for the future, not just for this government," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Sinclair and the other commissioners were invited to meet with Harper this afternoon where the prime minister was expected to thank them for their contribution. During question period Harper repeated his assertions from the 2008 policy that residential schools were "forced assimilation that not only destroyed the lives of individuals but of entire families and societies, and it has had long-lasting implications on entire communities in this country."
"That is why we have moved forward with the apology and why this government has taken multiple actions over the years to improve the lives of aboriginal Canadians," he said. "We continue to do so. These are concrete steps that are taken."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told the survivors the government was willing to prove it wants to have reconciliation by indicating plans to support Reconciliation Canada with funds for educational and community initiatives to teach Canadians about residential schools.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada will spend $750,000 this year on Reconciliation Canada and another $250,000 for the Legacy of Hope Foundation.
It will also provide $1 million this year for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation which will house the archives of residential schools, including the statements and documents collected by the TRC. The centre will be located at the University of Manitoba.
The TRC recommended a $10-million investment in the centre over seven years.
One of the most telling moments of the morning events came when Sinclair spoke of the need to hold a national inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal women. It is something the government has steadfastly refused to do, and when everyone else in the room was standing and clapping, Valcourt remained still in his seat.
Sinclair said he understands there are practical considerations and the government wouldn’t be able to afford to do everything immediately.
But Sinclair said "the one thing I am confident of is the cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something."
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