It’s one of the delights of this funny old world when people show a side of themselves you least expect. A good example took place during Saturday’s closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s unforgettable four days in Vancouver. The man who surprised was none other than Chuck Strahl.
Yes, that Chuck Strahl, long-time MP for the right-wing Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party of Canada.
The same Chuck Strahl who supported his government’s killing of the Kelowna Accord that had promised billions of dollars in aid to the country’s aboriginal population.
And, during his three years as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, while treaty negotiations in B.C. ground to a virtual standstill.
On the plus side, the government’s profound apology to residential school survivors and settlement of their class-action lawsuit occurred while Mr. Strahl was still at the helm of Indian Affairs, but few would suggest the Harper government he served was in any way a beacon of empathy for native rights. Quite the contrary.
So, when he was sworn in as an Honorary Witness to the intensely painful and emotional testimony of the scarred survivors of native residential schools, there must have been more than a few raised eyebrows.
What would he say at the end of it all? The usual political patter that what went on was wrong and must never happen again? Sure, but would he say more?
Freed from the restraints of toeing the party line, now that he is no longer an MP, Mr. Strahl rose to the occasion.
Ignoring a scattering of boos as he approached the podium, he talked about the difference between aboriginal people and government.
“Aboriginal people talk about honour, prayer, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and respect. Governments talk about regulations, legislation, enforcement, bylaws,” Mr. Strahl said. “Aboriginal people talk about values. Governments talk about interests.”
It was clear which approach he thought superior.
He told survivors and the native community: “I hope you continue to talk about things of the heart, things that matter, when so many of us have stopped talking about that. It’s a mighty powerful thing.”
Finally, Mr. Strahl disclosed that he had picked up a lot of material on what took place at residential schools, as he went through the many powerful displays on the PNE grounds.
He said he would be giving the material to his grand-daughters, who are being home-schooled. “I did that so they can understand what happened. That should happen for all school age children in Canada,” he said.
There were no boos when Mr. Strahl sat down.