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June 15, 2015

The truth has been told; reconciliation is yet to come. Reconciliation with Canada's Aboriginal people – over the residential school morass, yes, but also over the whole range of issues afflicting indigenous people – will require political will.

During the nine years of the current federal government, there has been no hint of a political will to put relations between Canada's original peoples and the dominant settler culture on a more equitable footing. The Harper government began its term in office by walking away from the Kelowna Accord, a landmark agreement that would have gone a long way toward dealing with some of the pressing issues facing Aboriginal communities.

To its credit, it did apologize in 2008 for government involvement in Indian residential schools. Missing from that apology, however, was any mention of the government's century-long failure to properly fund those schools. Underfunding was not the only problem with the school system or the most fundamental one, but it did underlie a host of other ills, ranging from the near-starvation diets with which students were fed to reduced hours of schooling because the students had to perform free labour to support the school.

That the Harper government failed to apologize for the underfunding of residential schools telegraphed its attitude to Aboriginal affairs today: "Don't expect more money from us."

The government's lack of political will was underlined in the days following the June 2 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission summary report. There was no hint that the government will make the report its own, not the least sign of encouragement.

Perhaps the government is waiting so it can put together a coherent response. However, it should have at least given a positive indication that it will take action and will seek to build a new relationship with Aboriginal people.

Contrast that non-reaction with the leap of two cabinet ministers into the momentous debate of whether Tim Hortons should have pulled commercials for Enbridge off its in-store TV sets. Their scrambling into that fray gives some idea of which issues lie closest to the government's heart.

It is notorious that politicians can ignore Aboriginal issues with impunity. That is, a failure to seek solutions to the issues facing Aboriginal people will not cost a political party many votes on election day. That sad fact is as much the responsibility of the electorate as of politicians. We are the ones who should press our government to find constructive solutions to the marginalization and oppression of Canada's first peoples.

Nevertheless, political will requires leadership. Real leadership does not hide from a country's most vexing problems, but rather grabs hold of them and enters into a tenacious quest for lasting solutions. Government leadership on Aboriginal issues is at its lowest ebb in a very long time. Canadians should now step forward and demand that their leaders lead on this most central issue of our nationhood.