It scarcely seems possible that 11 years has gone by since the then Prime Minister of Canada stood up in the House of Commons and apologized to the First Nations peoples for the aboriginal residential school system that had been put in place – ironically enough – in the same chambers of parliament over a century ago. The last schools closed down within the lifetime of all those reading this post.
I won’t go into that shameful part of our history and its aftermath because both the speech of the Prime Minister and the reply by Chief Phil Fontaine do a moving job of doing exactly that.
As I talked to you before on many occasions, on the matter of effective and engaging speeches, sometimes it is just the event itself that is so fraught with moment, that it supersedes the words and the oratorical skills of the speaker(s). That said, in the context of this occasion, I believe they rose to the task at hand admirably.
As to the value of such a speech – the value of a public national mea culpa – you just ask those who had been on the receiving end of state sanctioned destruction and inquire if such an apology is of value.
Put yourselves in their shoes for one minute. Some so-called authority figure shows up on your doorstep and tells you they are going to take your children away to educate them “properly”. What you won’t be told is that their language, their culture, and their confidence will be thoroughly destroyed. Well perhaps they won’t tell you that. Nor will they tell you that your children might well be in physical and sexual harm’s way. And as it turns out they were.
We are all implicated.
Now before you protest that’s just liberal guilt talking, that you can’t be faulted by the acts of your ancestors, you might want to have a little reconsider of that particular moral high ground.
My best friend articulated the matter thusly:
“I was glued to my TV during the apology from the House of Commons on Wednesday. I was watching for the nuances, the signs that what was being said was sincere, that the words were clearly attached to a commitment to healing and reconciliation.
It has taken too long for this gesture. There have been other apologies – the former federal government, through the Minister of Indian Affairs, our own church through the words of former Primate Michael Peers.
This time the words of contrition seemed to coincide with a national awareness, an accepting of the horror that took place and the inherited responsibility that comes with it, especially by Euro Canadians such as myself. This is not a popular position to take. Guilt by association – as some would call it – isn’t legitimate, the events had nothing to do with me, I would never have done those things and am therefore blameless in this matter.
Unfortunately life isn’t as simple as that. A heavy mantle lies on our shoulders precisely because it was our ancestors who perpetrated these deeds. One can’t on the one hand take all the glory of our forebears, the nation and community building, the wars fought and won, the faith defended, the jurisprudence and democratic institutions that were planted, the kindliness and caring that was instilled in our nature and national psyche, without also taking responsibility for actions which were repugnant, which evidenced institutional racism and the teaching of bigotry and intolerance in the name of God.
The legacy we have been handed includes much to be proud of and much to be ashamed of. It isn’t enough to merely build on our strengths, we also have to correct past mistakes.
The residential school system and the racial assumptions that flowed from it poisoned not just the generations who had to suffer the abuses directly – people who were never parented and those who were never allowed to parent – but the children of those, and their children too. The sickness continues, handed down from one generation to another as family shame and sickness often are.
People who have never seen a residential school continue to suffer. The sins of the father are visited on the children.
First Nations people have inherited a bad situation and so have the Euro Canadians. We’ll have to work together in order to free us all from this history.
It’s something we have in common, something that needs to be purged from both our consciences. Genuine acceptance of aboriginal peoples as equals by the police, before our courts, in our churches, schools, the housing and employment markets and right across society will evidence true acceptance of our white history and a believable desire to be forgiven for what we have done as a people. Official ceremonies and carefully chosen words are all very well and they are most certainly welcome, coming as they did from the elected representatives of the men and women who make up this country. But much more will be needed. Leaders must speak out strongly in order to encourage and sponsor change, to alter attitudes.
Hopefully this time the words will mark an honest turning point in how First Nations and Euro Canadians could see each other: brothers and sisters under the sun in this fine land, God’s chosen brought together in His love and for His purpose, embraced in heart and spirit, forever linked in a mutual fellowship as we work to honour the planet and its past and to play our own unique part in the creation story.
With hope that we may all overcome this and every barrier that separates us.”