By Lloyd Dolha
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stunned First Nations leaders and mindful Canadians when he proclaimed that “we [Canada] have no history of colonialism” during the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh on September 25, 2009. Hosted this year by U.S. President Barack Obama, the G-20 forum encourages economic dialogue between industrial and emerging-market countries. Harper was in the Steel City to join leaders of the top 20 developed and developing economies in the world to address the global credit crisis. The prime minister made his unfortunate remarks during the closing G-20 news conference.
Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador said Harper’s statement denying colonialism was insulting and injurious to all First Nations and Indigenous peoples of Canada. “We cannot remain silent when such false statements are made. In fact, society has a responsibility to denounce such misleading statements,” said Chief Picard. “Denying the history of colonialism in Canada is like denying the holocaust.” Chief Angus Toulose of the Chiefs of Ontario called on the prime minister to immediately retract the inaccurate statement, and added that “clearly Canada does have a history of colonialism and for many years forcefully imposed assimilationist policies on First Nations in this country.” Chief Toulose further noted that First Nations communities across the country continue to feel the devastating effects of those policies.
Both leaders pointed out that Harper’s statement contradicted his earlier apology to First Nations regarding the Residential School System and completely ignored the nation’s colonial past during which the Native inhabitants were made wards of the state with no rights of citizenship. They added that legislation created by the dominant settler population and its government (such as the Indian Act) and policies of registering Aboriginal people for the purposes of control have established a long-standing colonial relationship of a racist, exploitive, and coercive. Internationally, Canada has been widely condemned in United Nations reports for its treatment of Aboriginal peoples and is one of only three nations in the world that has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (created September 2007).
The prime minister’s office said the comments were taken out of context and misunderstood. “It was in response to a question from Reuters about Canada’s voice and role in the international financial market. Basically, the prime minister was giving some context and saying that unlike past global empires, Canada does not have a history of colonialism with respect to the financial market,” said spokesperson Sara MacIntyre. “Past global empires have implemented policies that are colonial in nature. It was really focused on the international financial scene.”
Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, former leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, agreed the statement had been taken out of context. “It is important to consider the context of [Harper’s] comments last week,” he said. “The prime minister sought to differentiate Canada’s history with that of past global empires with histories of colonialism. [Harper’s] apology for the tragedy if Indian residential schools last year clearly acknowledge the wrongdoings and racist policies of Canada’s past.”
AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo disagreed, calling the prime minister’s comments “shocking, confounding, and wrong.” Chief Atleo stated, “The Prime Minister must be held to the highest standard especially when speaking to the international community. There is no room for error.” He added, “The current line of response from federal officials that the prime minister’s remarks were taken out of context is simply not good enough for someone in his position.” The AFN leader said he has spoken to the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and urged both him and the prime minister to meet with First Nations leaders to address the matter.