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article imageHarper in Pittsburgh: 'Canada has no history of colonialism'

By Stephanie Dearing     Oct 3, 2009 in Politics
During the Pittsburgh G20 meeting, Canada's Prime Minster Stephen Harper riled Canada's First Nations with a statement to international press that Canada has no history of colonialism.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was addressing the media at a international press conference at the G20 summit held in Pittsburgh in September, he said "Every nation wants to be Canada ... We also have no history of colonialism." While Harper's aides claim his comments on colonialism were taken out of context, First Nation leaders are demanding an apology. Shawn Atleo, the new head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is asking for a meeting with Harper, although so far, his requests have been denied. Atleo said "The future cannot be built without regard to the past. Internationally, Canada has been scrutinized and harshly criticized for its treatment of indigenous peoples and failure to respect aboriginal and treaty rights."
AFN's Ontario Regional Chief, Angus Toulouse said in a press release, "I am calling on the Prime Minister to immediately retract this inaccurate statement as clearly Canada does have a history of colonialism and for many years forcefully imposed assimilationist policies on the First Nations people in this country. The devastating effects of these harmful policies are still being felt within First Nation communities across this country." Toulouse added that Harper acknowledged Canada's colonial history in his historic apology to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples in 2008, for the harm caused by the residential school system.
Canada's First Nations are upset that Canada has refused to endorse the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration was adopted in 2007, although the United States, New Zealand and Canada are the only countries that have refused to sign the declaration. At the time, Canadian representatives, such as John McNee, Canada's UN ambassador, said there were "... significant concerns on wording on provisions addressing lands and resources, as well as another article calling on states to obtain prior informed consent with indigenous groups before enacting new laws or administrative measures ... the provision is overly broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations."
Apparently speaking off the cuff at the Pittsburgh press conference on September 25th, Harper was reported to have been uncharacteristically passionate as he extolled Canada's economic strengths during the recession. He said "We're so self-effacing as Canadians that we sometimes forget the assets we do have that other people see. We are one of the most stable regimes in history. ... We are unique in that regard ... We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them. Canada is big enough to make a difference but not big enough to threaten anybody. And that is a huge asset if it's properly used."
In a press release, Atleo said "First Nation leaders and a chorus of Canadians find the Prime Minister's comments that there is "no history of colonialism" in Canada shocking, confounding and wrong." The release was headed up with a definition of colonialism: the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people; the system or policy by which a nation maintains or advocates such control or influence.
Harper's apology last year to Canada's First Nations for Canada's assimilation policies was the first of its kind in the nation. Surrounded by aboriginal people, some weeping, Harper apologized in Ottawa. "Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language. While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities."
This latest error follows on the heels of a major blunder that saw hundreds of body bags shipped to northern First Nations communities earlier in September. Canadians are still awaiting an explanation for the error.
There is no word as to whether Harper's gaffe might affect Canada's attempt to secure a seat on the United Nation's Security Council .
More about First nations, Colonialism, G20
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