Stephen Harper took part in an emotional closing ceremony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the Prime Minister did not say a word.
Silence has largely been the government's official response to the 94 recommendations released Tuesday by the commission, whose nearly six-year examination of Canada's residential-schools history resulted in calls for sweeping reforms to government policy and a conclusion that the system amounted to "cultural genocide."
Those recommendations were released along with an almost 400-page summary of the final report, but the much larger version won't be released until later this year. The government now says it will wait for the final report before providing a response, a position that could potentially push any decisions until after the October election.
Still, the government is facing political pressure to act more quickly on the report's most sweeping – and expensive – recommendations, including increased funding for education and child welfare as well as a new "nation-to-nation" approach to resolving disputes in areas such as land and natural resources.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Mr. Harper's 2008 formal apology for residential schools was a "shining moment" for Canada, but without action the words are meaningless.
The government doesn't need to wait to act on the commission's recommendations, Mr. Bellegarde said, pointing out that others backed the recommendations immediately. "To have a wait-and-see approach from this government, to me it's just not acceptable," he said. "They had a golden opportunity to send a strong message and, to me, I think it was a missed opportunity."
Justice Murray Sinclair, who steered the commission, called for immediate action on its recommendations at Wednesday's ceremony.
"My fellow commissioners and I are convinced that for healing and reconciliation to happen in this country, such work must be done as a high – and, in some cases, urgent – priority," he said.
The Prime Minister did release a written statement after he attended the closing ceremony at Rideau Hall that featured a prayer circle, videos of testimony from former students, statements from church leaders and speeches by commissioners and Governor-General David Johnston.
"While this is an important milestone in getting our country past the days of Indian residential schools, work is still needed to help heal the pain and restore trust from that wrong," the Prime Minister's statement said.
Mr. Harper says the government is already taking many concrete steps to improve the lives of aboriginals, including increased job training and providing "vast amounts of money" for education and health. The Conservative government signed the out-of-court settlement agreement with survivors of residential schools and churches that created the commission.
However, Mr. Harper has not committed to fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, another of the commission's recommendations, and has so far avoided using the term "cultural genocide."
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Wednesday that an NDP government would act on one of the recommendations – a public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women – within the first few days of an NDP government. He also said an NDP government would create a "respectful nation-to-nation" approach to aboriginal issues and would immediately focus on increased spending for aboriginal education.
"The NDP would put a filter on all decisions that we take to make sure that everything we do respects First Nations' treaty rights, their inherent rights and Canada's international obligations to our first people," he said.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt also attended Wednesday's ceremony. He did not speak and his office declined a request for an interview. The minister has indicated that the government is prepared to act in two specific areas.
The government is pledging to provide $1-million to the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which will be at the University of Manitoba and will house the millions of historical records that were gathered by the commission. The minister also pledged an unspecified amount of support for Reconciliation Canada and the Legacy of Hope charitable foundation to support public education events and activities.
With a report from Kim Mackrael