POLITICS

Stephen Harper defends aboriginal affairs record in wake of residential schools report

06/02/2015 04:47 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT
Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent much of Tuesday's question period defending his government's work on aboriginal affairs as the opposition challenged him on the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings.

But Harper wouldn't commit to any of the 94 recommendations outlined in the summary report, released Tuesday morning.  

Members from the NDP, including Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, questioned Harper repeatedly as to whether the government would fully adopt the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the commissioners called the "framework for reconciliation."

The prime minister answered by reiterating his party's stance on the declaration.

"Canada is one of the very few countries in the world where aboriginal and treaty rights are recognized and that's one of the reasons why the government accepts the UN declaration as an aspirational document," he told the Commons.

The declaration outlines the minimum human rights standards for indigenous people.

Canada voted against it when it was accepted by the UN in 2007, along with Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The countries argued it would undermine their sovereignty. 

In 2010, the government accepted it as an "aspirational" document. Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash re-introduced the declaration as a private member's bill in early May, but it was defeated by the government.

Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission's chair, told CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge on Monday's edition of The National that he didn't mind the government's characterization of the declaration.

"It should be an aspirational document. So what we're saying to them is, 'Aspire to it.'"

Liberals promise to implement all 94 recommendations

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pledged his party's commitment to adopt and implement all of the recommendations made in the TRC report. He asked the Conservatives if they would do the same.

"The commission has spent a long time on this report — a commission established by this government," Harper replied.

"It has issued a large number of recommendations and we are still awaiting the full report. The government will examine all of these [and] obviously read them before deciding on what the appropriate next steps are."

Harper reiterated his government's support for aboriginal people, referencing the recent budget's funding and investments for First Nations. The prime minister and several of his MPs brought up his 2008 apology to residential school survivors multiple times.

"Intentions are not enough. An apology is only meaningful if it is accompanied by real action," said Mulcair.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, and his fellow commissioners, Dr. Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild, watched question period from the gallery and were acknowledged by Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.

The Prime Minister's Office said Harper would be meeting with the commissioners Tuesday to go over the recommendations in the report and to express his gratitude for their work.