Blood Tribe Chief Charles Weasel Head was so moved by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the country’s residential schools era that he requested an honorary chieftanship for the Canadian leader.
On July 11 Harper became the second sitting prime minister to receive the honor, which he was led to amid ceremonial drums by a woman veteran who had been severely wounded in Afghanistan.
Harper joins Prince Charles, Pope John Paul II, and three Alberta premiers, Peter Lougheed, Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach. John Diefenbaker, prime minister in the 1950s, was the first sitting prime minister to be made honorary chief; former prime minister Jean Chretien also received the honor, back when he was the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Calgary Herald said.
Traditionally a capturer, a warrior, leads the designated chief into the ceremony. This year that role was filled by a woman for the first time: 27-year-old Master Corporal Melissa Whitegrass, who was wounded by suicide bombers targeting a convoy on May 18, 2010, and gave birth to a girl a year to the day later. Six NATO soldiers and 18 Afghan civilians were killed in that attack as well.
The schools apology, Weasel Head told the Canadian Press, “sort of set the direction and the tone of rebuilding the relationship with First Nations.”
“It is a great privilege to be named an honorary Chief of Alberta’s Blood Tribe, a strong and proud First Nation,” said Prime Minister Harper in a statement. “I am particularly proud of this honor given it recognizes the efforts that our government has been taking to help preserve the rich culture and heritage of First Nations in Canada while also investing in the future of aboriginal peoples.”
The statement noted that honorary chiefs’ charge is to help promote the cultural pride of Blackfoot and Kainai and all First Nations and that they “are expected to maintain the headdress with the highest respect and be an available resource to First Nations.”
Harper has indicated he is amenable to meeting with First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders later this year and has pledged to improve education on reserves.