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Ken S. Coates is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s senior policy fellow for aboriginal and northern Canadian issues.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin changed the national vocabulary on Thursday. Her simple comment that Canada had attempted “cultural genocide” on indigenous peoples, an explanation central to aboriginal understanding of Canadian history and well-known to students of Canada’s past, is a demonstration of this country’s slow-changing political maturity on the indigenous file.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood, with indigenous leaders joining him on the floor of the House of Commons, and uttered a similarly meaningful statement about residential schools. He said, on behalf of all Canadians, that he was “sorry.” Why it took so long is a mystery known only to the legal advisers who guided the government’s hand, for aboriginal people and historians long knew of the perhaps unintended but nonetheless destructive impact of residential schools. But it was a start.
It was a simple and honest word, with substantial political implications. Chief Justice McLachlin has done much the same thing, saying out loud what she and many other prominent Canadians have long known, namely that Canada treated aboriginal people abysmally and made concerted efforts to undermine their cultures and deny them basic Canadian rights.
It is a statement shocking only in the fact that a prominent Canadian leader is saying this publicly in 2015 and not years before.
If there is a downside to the Chief Justice’s statement, it is that critics of judicial activism will likely find much to criticize. By speaking so clearly and forcefully on a topic of prime legal importance, with hundreds of related cases before the courts, she surely shows her hand.
By providing a personal – but highly influential – observation about the injustice foisted on aboriginal people, critics will say, the Court has telegraphed its opinion and encouraged aboriginal litigants.
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