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First Nations Voices are Raising

Posted by mhudema on June 13, 2008

Canada delivers an official apology to its increasingly assertive indigenous peoples

FEW would dispute that Canada’s shameful treatment of many of its aboriginals has left a stain on its image. Between 1870 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were wrenched from their homes and sent to Christian boarding schools, where many were sexually and physically abused. Yet until Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister, rose in the House of Commons on June 11th to deliver an unqualified official apology to assembled leaders of Canada’s 1m First Nation, Inuit and mixed-race Métis people, no Canadian leader had taken this step.

Parallels will be drawn with a similar act of contrition by Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Labor prime minister in February. But the two differ in important respects. Australia offered an apology, but no compensation, to 55,000 mixed-race children forced into white foster homes. Mr Harper’s apology follows a C$2 billion ($2 billion) settlement in 2005 of a lawsuit by former students of schools set up, in Mr Harper’s words, “to kill the Indian in the child” by assimilating them into the dominant culture.

Mr Harper’s decision to apologise now is probably aimed in part at curtailing future lawsuits by Indian victims of abuse, who chose not to take part in the earlier settlement. But it is also shows that he understands the value of saying sorry when the state has harmed its citizens. He recently apologised to Maher Arar, a Canadian tortured in Syria after wrongly being identified as a terrorist; and to Chinese-Canadians for the government’s punitive Chinese head-tax policy of 1885-1923.

But this week’s ceremony is also testimony to the increasingly sophisticated use made by Canada’s indigenous tribes, who make up a mere 3.8% of the population, of the courts, alliances with environmental groups and targeted protests against mining companies to strengthen their otherwise limited influence.

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