As the Nishiyuu walkers basked in the glow of their triumphant arrival in Ottawa after a 900-mile snowshoe trek from remote Whapmagoostui, Quebec, on March 26, the memes started flying. The panda memes, that is.
Notably absent from a greeting crowd of thousands that included Members of Parliament, the country’s highest-ranking First Nations leaders and other notables was Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was in Toronto, greeting a pair of panda bears from China.
"It says a lot that Stephen Harper isn't here, that he's greeting the pandas,'' Green Party leader Elizabeth May told the Canadian Press. "It says a lot that we need to move heaven and earth to meet First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis with respect.''
Aboriginal leaders were also quick to note the stark contrast between the youths’ welcome and the Prime Minister’s absence.
“It is with great pride that I acknowledge these incredible young people to our territory and on behalf of the Anishinabek Nation I say Chi-Miigwetch for your dedication, determination and unified spirit,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee of the walkers, in a statement. “This sort of strength shows Canada that First Nations are a force to be reckoned with.”
It was an accomplishment, he noted fiercely, that made Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s choice of priorities all the more glaring. There they were, intrepid youths who had set out on January 17 and arrived in Ottawa on March 26 along with nearly 300 who had joined them along the way. They stood on the steps of Parliament before a crowd of thousands who cheered their arrival. Although Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt met with the walkers later, he did not greet them at the Peace Tower.
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to these young people who have inspired us with their determination, while we face a government that simply refuses to consult with First Nations people on ways we can work together to make the future better for everyone in Canada,” Madahbee said in a statement. “As I understand it, the Prime Minister was invited to greet the walkers just outside his office on Parliament Hill, but he chose to spend taxpayers’ money to fly to Toronto and have his picture taken with panda bears from China.”
Madahbee said the gesture—or lack thereof—further illustrated Harper’s lack of true commitment to the relationship with the First Nations peoples of Canada.
“He wouldn’t meet with our leaders after Chief Spence risked her life in a hunger strike and he won’t meet with our youth after they walked 1,600 kilometers in the spirit of unity,” Madahbee said. “Sooner or later Stephen Harper will understand that First Nations people will not stop when it comes to fighting for recognition of our rights. This government always claims it’s doing more for First Nations than any other government, but in reality they’ve done more harm than good. Our dedicated young people like the Nishiyuu Walkers are doing more for our people than any government.”
Many others went for irony over ire in commenting on Harper’s choice of international diplomacy over domestic accomplishment.
"Pray for the Pandas their[sic] stuck with Harper," read one sign at the rally.
Meanwhile, the memes that were created last year when Harper signed the initial panda-visitation agreement resurfaced, and new ones appeared. The Twittersphere also erupted with Harper-Panda commentary such as, “Real life: Teenagers walk 2 months to Parliament Hill. Harper says hi to some pandas in Toronto,” and “Stephen Harper: The Prime Minister who cares more about pandas than his own people,” and, “Greet #Nishiyuu walkers arriving on the Hill or photo-op with arriving Pandas? PANDAS!”
That last tweet evoked a 2012 skit from the CBC’s Rick Mercer Report, in which the comedian and commentator riffed about economic conditions and pandas by way of satirically advertising a fake board game, back when Harper first signed the hosting deal with China.