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Politician's remarks overshadow Canada's historical apology to natives

Friday, June 13, 2008

A long-awaited apology from the Canadian government to the country's native population was overshadowed on Wednesday by remarks made by Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) Pierre Poilievre. The government had announced that the historic statement was to take place on Wednesday, June 11, but prior to the actual apology, Poilievre spoke on a noon-hour radio program and made remarks that were 'hurtful' to natives, as the MP later admitted.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

The apology, which took place as planned, involved Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offering his regrets, on behalf of the government, for decades of racial discrimination towards natives in residential schools. These schools were operated during the 19th and 20th centuries by churches and funded by a branch of the federal government. The First Nations native children in the residential school system were forced to assimilate into non-native culture, were at times victims of physical and/or sexual abuse, and were exposed to poor sanitation and a lack of medical care.

Unfortunately, Poilievre's remarks caused more media attention than did the apology itself. In the radio show, the MP expressed his doubts about the value of compensating natives for what happened in residential schools. Natives are being given a cash settlement as part of the government's recognition of the schools' wrongdoings.

"Now, along with this apology, comes another $4 billion in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools over those years," Poilievre remarked. Many have pointed to his casual use of the word partook in his statement, which was not the case for many students, who were forced into the system.

The Conservative MP has now apologised for his comments. Yesterday, in the Canadian House of Commons, he spoke: "Yesterday on a day when the House and all Canadians were celebrating a new beginning, I made remarks that were hurtful and wrong." He added, "I accept responsibility for them and I apologize."

While Harper has tried to mitigate the situation by explaining that Poilievre has apologised to national aboriginal groups, the Liberal opposition party is calling the MP a "national embarrassment".

There have been repeated calls for the MP to step down from his position. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion suspects that other Conservatives think similarly, asking, "who of the others think like him?"


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