Friday September 18, 2015

Mi'kmaq elder calls Harper's 'old stock Canadians' offensive and racist

In yesterday's federal leaders debate, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, used the phrase "old stock Canadian" in an statement about health care for refugees. Mi'kmaq elder Stephen Augustine, right, says the use of the term was inappropriate.

In yesterday's federal leaders debate, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, used the phrase "old stock Canadian" in an statement about health care for refugees. Mi'kmaq elder Stephen Augustine, right, says the use of the term was inappropriate. (Left: Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press, Right: Steven Darby/Canadian Museum of History)

Listen 6:36

Last night's federal leaders debate was about the economy. But, today, many people who watched it are focusing on Stephen Harper's use of the phrase "old stock Canadians."

The Conservative leader used the phrase when speaking about cuts to refugee health care, saying that both new immigrants and "old-stock" Canadians agreed with his stance.

The use of the term quickly trended across social media, drawing confusion from many.

Earlier today, Harper defined the term saying it referred to "Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations." He also defended his stance on health care.

Regardless, Mi'kmaq elder Stephen Augustine says the term is "offensive and racist."

"There are Canadians and I just like to refer to them as Canadians," he tells As it Happens host Carol Off. "I think our health-care system should be available to anyone who is in Canada regardless of their origin."

Augustine is Dean of the Unama'ki College at Cape Breton University. He's also a Hereditary Chief of the Sigenigtog District Mi'kmawey Mawiomi.

He has been at the forefront of a push to bring more Syrian refugees to Canada.

"It's a matter of sovereignty that we should exercise to help desperate families running on the road with their children," he says. "It's totally inhumane what has happened to them trying to escape oppression and violence."

Augustine says that Canada's indigenous people have a long history of welcoming people from around the world.

"We have a long tradition of opening our doors and sharing our food and resources to people who are in need. We've always done that," he says. "I'm talking about John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain … All these people arrived here … and the Mi'kmaq opened their arms and welcomed them and said 'you are our brothers.'" 

Now, more than ever, he says that tradition should continue. Augustine is calling on other First Nations leaders to help out with the refugee crisis. 

"I'm issuing a challenge to them to step up to the plate and ask the government to open its doors and let us welcome these refugees to our territories," he says. "This is our treaty right to be able to welcome new citizens."

Here's how Harper's "old stock Canadians" played out on Twitter: