Empty rhetoric

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Stephen Harper’s speech at last week’s Crown-First Nations Summit in Ottawa didn’t directly address any real concerns. On Jan. 31 global developmental studies professor Robert Lovelace gave a talk about the situation in Attawapiskat.

The community’s elementary school was declared a toxic hazard in 1979 and many families are living in tents and substandard shelters. When asked what he thought of Harper’s speech, Lovelace said it was more of a Conservative campaign push than anything.

He’s absolutely right. Harper began by discussing all the “high points” in the relationship of First Nations with Canada. He mentioned the unity of aboriginal and non-aboriginal soldiers in wars since the War of 1812 as well as “all the historic treaties.” This statement is not only vague but also inappropriate.

Many, if not most of the treaties, certainly didn’t contribute to a mutually beneficial relationship with First Nations. The Canadian government usually, if not always, walked away with more.

Ambiguous statements were a theme in Harper’s address.

The situation in Attawapiskat may have gained the world’s attention, but it’s not a unique problem. First Nations peoples are facing extreme challenges and living in alarming conditions throughout Canada.

Many are calling to bring an end to the Indian Act, which has caused immense grief for First Nations since its creation in 1876. The act allows the government to regulate virtually all aspects of First Nations peoples’ lives. Stephen Harper said his goal is for First Nations peoples to be self-sufficient citizens with self-governing communities.

He also stated that the government had no plan of repealing or re-writing the entire Indian Act, but used words like “consultation,” and “options” to describe the actions he plans to take.

The Indian Act fails to build the capacity for self-governance, and until drastic changes are made it will continue to oppress First Nations peoples.

Stephen Harper also spoke about developing economic opportunities for First Nations, but failed to demonstrate any specific commitments to share resources or increase funding for education.

While last week’s summit was a much-needed acknowledgment of the concerns of First Nations people, it’s unclear whether any substantive action will be taken.

After all the summit’s rhetoric, we’re still left guessing.

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