It was a telling moment, and one as cold as any day in the past winter. When seven young people from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui finished the 1,600-kilometre trek from their home community to Ottawa, an effort to get the federal government’s attention on living conditions for native Canadians — and an epic trek by any measure — they were not met by Canada’s most senior politician.
No, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had something far more epic event to attend — a photo-op in Toronto, to welcome two Chinese pandas to the Toronto Zoo. After all, Canadian taxpayers are paying $1 million a year for the next 10 years to have the pandas here — five years in Toronto, five in Calgary — so you can imagine the prime minister wanted to be sure the investment had made the flight from Asia intact.
Now, it would be simple to just pile on and make the straightforward point that the Canadian people are Harper’s constituency, while pandas are not.
But the full story, as in most things, is probably much more complicated. And not only complicated — it’s also a mirror of a darker side of this country.
There is a bitter truth here: by not showing up for meet the young marchers in Ottawa, Prime Minister Harper may be “panda-ring” directly to his own constituency. Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a large proportion of people in this country who view native Canadians with complete disdain.
Read the comments on media websites during the Idle No More protests. The amount of ignorance about native issues, hatred and downright racism were quite apparent.
It may be that the prime minister simply weighed what his traditional supporters would rather see and the pandas won. That’s not a particularly palatable truth, but it may well be right.
There are, of course, probably other reasons as well. Perhaps China, seen as a formidable trading partner, might have felt offended if the highest politician in the country wasn’t on hand to meet the animals.
And there could be personal factors as well, including Harper’s dislike of any sort of appearance where he and his advisers could not exert full control.
This prime minister has shown for years that he prefers things on his own terms. He showed native leaders that same disdain when he refused to meet with hunger-striker Chief
But take it out of the realm of politics and into the world of simple politeness — a group of young Canadians, aged 18 to 21, walked 1,600 kilometres through a Canadian winter to bring a message to Ottawa.
The least the prime minister could have done is put their effort on par with a photo-op with a pair of pandas.