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Stephen Harper’s Cold Shoulder for Canada’s Indigenous Leaders

January 23, 2012

Sometimes the news hits you a particular way and you stand shocked, amazed at what you heard. Other times, you simply nod in acceptance as you expected so all along. This is a mixture of the two for me.

Attawapiskat has been in the news in Canada quite frequently, an Indigenous community that, through some challenges and systemic abuse, happened to catch the media and government’s eye. There are other communities in similar situations but they have not captured the national attention. I wrote briefly, earlier, some of my thoughts on the issue.

The issue, it is largely thought, had been handled poorly by the current Conservative Canadian government, in particular the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, John Duncan. Many Indigenous leaders were rightfully upset and, as a response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited any chief who wanted to come, to a meeting in Ottawa to discuss Indigenous issues in Canada. This was trumpeted as a move to show how much Harper valued Indigenous leadership and governance, how he recognized the important role leaders play in Indigenous communities and nations, and how he recognized the importance of the issues facing these communities.

To no one’s real surprise, news leaked earlier this week that Harper would not in fact attend much of the meeting, he would let his juniors take care of it – after all, he was Prime Minister and had lots of things to busy himself with. Many Indigenous leaders called him for the fraud he is but others, including National Chief Atleo, still believed the meetings were an important step and change could happen.

Today, after a brief meeting with the chiefs, many were shocked to hear Prime Minister Harper tell them to ‘contact their MPs’ if they had concerns – after all, he said, he was Prime Minister and couldn’t focus on these issues himself, with a whole country to run. So much for valuing Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous leaders. What had they traveled to Ottawa for, besides a photo-op?

I am shocked at the brazenness at which Prime Minister Harper plays his political games, openly disdaining Indigenous issues, brushing them off as ‘fringe’ and not worthy of his time. He opens his mouth to speak of the respect he has for Indigenous leaders only to show them the back of his hand. I am also shocked at the leadership that openly accepts such treatment. This is not every leader, many have spoken out against Harper and his antics, but when a man invites you for a meeting only to decline to attend and to tell you that he doesn’t care to hear your words – you don’t turn around and praise him.

And yet, I am also not shocked. This is part of a long history of White Canadian leaders who have led Indigenous leaders into believing that they meant well. From the treaties until now, it has happened time and again. It’s part of the colonial nature of Canada. It’s time for everyone to stop allowing the Canadian government to shirk their responsibilities, to pretend like there is no real issue to be resolved, and to take Indigenous leadership seriously. Otherwise, this won’t be the last incident in a long line of colonialism against Indigenous people.

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