06/03/2015 04:30 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT

Truth And Reconciliation Commission Chair Calls For Urgent Action

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper listened in silence Wednesday as the head of an exhaustive study of residential schools and their dark legacy urged all levels of government to make reconciliation and healing a top priority.

The results of that study demands a political response, said Justice Murray Sinclair, the chairman of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission that was established in 2007 to document the tragic history of residential schools in Canada.

"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," Sinclair said.

"And it must be done in partnership."

Harper and Sinclair were among a large gathering of politicians, commissioners, residential school survivors and members of the aboriginal community who gathered at Rideau Hall to formally close the commission's work.

Neither Harper, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt nor Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq spoke at the event.

"The nearly 7,000 people who shared and recorded their experiences and reflections with us have talked about the connections between their residential school experiences and many things that remain," Sinclair said.

"The rupture from home and family, and the inability to parent children and maintain the loving relationships, the mental, physical and spiritual abuses."

It's the commission's responsibility to share these stories, he continued.

"It has been our duty to learn all that we could about Canada's 130-year history of residential schools. It has been our challenge to share that history and legacy as widely as we could with all Canadians."

A summary of the commission's findings, which concluded that Canada's residential-school era constituted "cultural genocide," was released Tuesday along with 94 extensive recommendations that amounted to a comprehensive overhaul of the Crown's relationship with Aboriginal Peoples.

Since then, the daily question period has, unsurprisingly, been dominated by debate about the extent of the government's duty to act on those recommendations — one of which was to adopt the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"Canada is one of the only countries in the world where aboriginal and treaty rights are entrenched in our Constitution," said Mark Strahl, effectively the junior aboriginal affairs minister.

"We have endorsed the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples as an aspirational document, and a significant step forward in improving our relationship with Aboriginal Peoples."

And for a second straight day, the government refused to acknowledge the commission's use of the phrase "cultural genocide," despite prodding from the opposition.

New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair said an NDP government would put a "filter" on its decisions to ensure they respect First Nations treaty rights and obligations, and embark on a "vast consultation" on aboriginal education.

The Conservative government proposed an ambitious aboriginal education initiative in 2014, but it foundered after some First Nations leaders complained about a lack of consultation.

Mulcair, speaking Wednesday of a "nation-to-nation" dialogue with Canada's aboriginal communities, admitted there would be logistical challenges in establishing such a relationship with some 600 First Nations.

Hard work, sure, Mulcair said — but he's at least willing to try.

"Mr. Harper likes to boast that the decisions he has to make are tough decisions. Well, this is a tough one, and it requires hard work, but it requires putting people around the same table."

It's unconscionable that aboriginal children "receive systematically 30 per cent less than other Canadian kids" for education, he added.

"So that's easy to fix. You can get to that but you can't impose it. It has to be the result of a vast consultation."

Mulcair repeated his promise to launch within 100 days of taking office a royal commission of inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said "the manner in which Canada over 148 years has dealt with its native peoples is a massive stain on our citizenship."

"We have to deal with it irrespective of the time frame and costs — it must be done," he said Wednesday evening in Montreal.

When asked if Canada's treatment of aboriginals amounted to "cultural genocide" Mulroney responded by saying he hadn't yet read the report.

— With files from Joan Bryden and Bruce Cheadle and Giuseppe Valiante

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