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Harper Talks About Attawapiskat, Aboriginal Issues With CTV News

In speaking with CTV at length, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada discussed world politics and the Middle East, the international and national economies, and touched upon aboriginal issues, with Attawapiskat as a jumping-off point.
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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke with CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior News Editor Lisa LaFlamme in an interview aired on Boxing Day, discussing everything from domestic issues to the revolutions occurring in the Middle East since the Arab Spring burst into bloom earlier this year.

Just three minutes of the approximately 50-minute interview were devoted to aboriginal affairs, and those were related to Attawapiskat First Nation—the new lens through which Canada, or at least the news media, seems to view the country's indigenous population.

More time—the entire eight-minute fourth segment—was devoted to the Harpers’ personal life and the challenges of raising two kids while in office than to the fate of the country’s indigenous population, or their potential contribution.

When Harper spoke of the world economy and developing an immigration policy, he put it in terms of recruiting immigrants to fill in the upcoming labor shortage engendered by the aging of the mainstream Canadian population—never touching on what many researchers have called the vast economic potential of the country’s expanding aboriginal youth demographic.

The full CTV News interview is worth viewing, as Harper comments on a vast array of issues both domestic and international. It is posted online in five parts. CTV segued into Attawapiskat and aboriginal affairs in Part 3, after a news clip on the state funeral of Jack Layton, which Harper earned acclaim for bestowing on the official opposition leader, who was mourned by the entire country at his death in August from cancer.

Though lauded for his magnanimity on that score, CTV reported, Harper was later accused of a shortage of compassion for what had transpired in Attawapiskat, when news broke of housing conditions so dire that the chief had asked for an evacuation. The plea fell on deaf government ears until a public outcry prompted government action and the Red Cross stepped in. But the federal government’s response, to send in a financial auditor paid for by the band, was widely seen as seeking to lay blame rather than address the problem.

CTV: So you were criticized enormously for basically blaming the band. And I wonder, do you regret that?

Harper: I think Canadians understand that when the government is held responsible, the government needs to demand results. And I think that's what every Canadian understands.

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We've put money in, and we are going to do whatever's necessary to make sure we get results and that we protect the interests of the ordinary person in that community as we would in any other community.

CTV: But the average Canadian is also looking at these little children and the red rashes on their face like they're poster children for an international aid organization—and it's Canada. And they're saying, are you the prime minister who can change this?

Harper: Well, I say these are significant challenges but I think we have seen improvement over the past few years. Obviously these are not situations that occurred overnight. And I think if we continue to do what we're doing we'll continue to see improvement. But we've got a lot of work to do.

CTV: Your view to that meeting in January with the chiefs. You must have something in your mind that can perhaps make a difference with this crisis.

Harper: I never see one meeting or one particular event as being determinative of the future. I think on aboriginal matters as in all other matters we will make progress one step at a time with sustained effort over a long period of time.

This government has made significant investments into aboriginal communities. And if you were to go back 25, 30 years, there are a lot of aboriginal communities where there has been real progress in this country. There are some where there has not been as much progress. I think the solution will be a combination of investments and also in many cases a combination of investments with improved governments so that investments turn into results. And those are the things that I hope to work with aboriginal leaders to accomplish.

CTV: It's still such a pattern of paternalism though. Do you feel the Indian Act itself needs changing?

Harper: I think everyone thinks the Indian act needs changing. the big challenge is what do you replace it with. we want to see abo communities that are health and self-governing. And I think in the long term the only way any community really moves forward is if it has a significant degree of control over its own future—and not just the community but individuals—have control over their own futures. That's for the best.

But in the meantime, when we're doing major public investments, we have to insist that we see results with that money.