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You know you are north of the 49th parallel when the burning question of the day is: what will the world come to if the CBC loses the “Hockey Night in Canada” theme song. We are all about to find out. The unthinkable has happened.

This bizarre episode began in 1968, when Dolores Claman, a classically-trained composer, was asked to come up with theme music for something she had never seen first-hand, a professional hockey game. She pictured Roman gladiators on skates, and five notes suddenly popped into her head.

Even though the song went on to become one the country’s most recognizable commercial tunes, it never made her more than a modest income. She and her husband composed more than 2,000 jingles and theme songs.

Even with their commercial success, Dolores lived in relative obscurity until five days ago, when the hockey night ditty sold to CTV, a commercial broadcaster, for an estimated one million dollars. After agreeing to pony up $850,000, the CBC bailed out of the bidding war.

The eighty year-old jingle writer, who now lives in London, said the song “just arrived in my head.” She wanted it to reflect the narrative arc of hockey itself– the arrival at the rink, the battle on the ice, the trip home, with a cold beer at the end of it all. What could be more Canadian than that?

The CBC has been apologizing like crazy to irate listeners and viewers for losing the well-loved theme, but they hope to generate enthusiasm for a new theme with a country-wide competition.

A far more somber apology was issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons on Thursday. Taking his cue from Kevin Rudd, the Conservative PM apologized for Canada’s efforts to wipe out aboriginal languages and culture in the name of assimilation, and, in particular, for the policy of removing native children from their families and placing them in residential schools.

Despite feelings by some Liberals that the apology reeked of political opportunism, Harper’s speech was well received and there were many wet eyes in the House.  It seems to have been one of the few acts since he  became prime minister that has been well regarded by most of the Canadian people.  The least favourable comments in the latest survey came from his fellow conservatives.

Unfortunately, Harper made no promises to improve social conditions.  It was one small step for Canadians on the long road to reconciliation and respect for the native population of this land.

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The apology to the aborigines for the “stolen generations” may not have made headlines in North America, but it was a big deal here in Australia. We happened to be on the road when it happened, but I found a copy of “The Age” at a newsagent’s shop in Tasmania. The front page on Valentine’s Day was given over to five large photos of aboriginals, some in tears.

The headline read: Outburst of Emotion Echoes Across the Land. It was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s moment, as he made the speech acknowledging the pain of the native people caused by government policy of legal kidnapping graphically illustrated by the film–“Rabbit Proof Fence.” When I saw the film I assumed that since the film was set in the thirties, the policy that formed its central conflict had disappeared years ago. Not so.

The policy was in place from 1910 until 1970. It affected up to 100,00 aboriginal children who were removed from their families and placed in church or state institutions or foster homes. According to verbal testimony taken for the 1995 inquiry “Bringing Them Home,” many of them were subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse.

The main motive seems to have been assimilation. Undoubtedly there were altruistic caregivers who were primarily concerned with the welfare of the native children, but the instant orphans were discouraged from speaking their own language or getting in touch with their families. The best of intentions could not compensate for that emotional amputation. Rudd’s speech carefully avoided the promise of monetary compensation, but he did declare the need to “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.”

The apology may have been nothing more than a symbolic act, a way of assuaging the guilt of the white population of Australia, but it is a beginning. Even coming from a country with an awful history of native subjugation and despair, I have been shocked by media reports on conditions in aboriginal settlements here. Let us hope that Rudd’s vision will be translated into effective action that will trigger the changes that are so necessary to restore the pride and self-sufficiency of the aboriginal population. There are no easy solutions.

Treatment of the native population by the early English settlers is a sad story, horrific in the case of Tasmania. Arthur Phillip’s instructions were “to endeavor by any means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections….” But Phillip had come to settle “terra nullius” with ships full of convicts and soldiers, not the most enlightened of people. Early contact between natives and newcomers often led to conflict, sometimes to bloodshed.

Before the first year was out, even the thoughtful Captain Phillip had sanctioned kidnapping a native in order to learn the language and customs of the aboriginals in the area.

At least Arabanoo was a grown man.

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