Aboriginals plan to build on apology
Leaders seize on momentum of Harper’s words to curb prejudice
After the apology, says Willie Blackwater, the next time someone sees “a drunken Indian” they might think twice about their prejudice.
It is his hope that the government’s apology and the coming work of the truth and reconciliation commission will educate Canadians about the realities of their own history and shake some bigotry away in the process. His view is from the ground, as one of nearly 90,000 survivors of the Indian residential school system and its legacy of social breakdown, for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada this week.
Aboriginal leaders are vowing not to let the momentum of the apology slip away. They heard a message of respect from the prime minister and have immediately asserted some priorities.
Among them are a request by Inuit and Métis leaders for the government to reconsider the exclusion of hundreds, if not thousands, of their people from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which provides financial compensation to individual survivors of residential schools. They were included in the apology, so they should be included in the compensation program, they say. Mr. Harper promised to examine their requests.
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said some schools attended by Inuit in Newfoundland and Labrador were left off because they were not part of Canada at the time.
“I believe that real and lasting forgiveness must be earned,” she told the Senate the day after the apology. “It will be forthcoming only when it is clear that government is willing to act.”
Métis National Council president Clément Chartier said thousands of Métis attended residential schools, enduring forced separation from family, attacks on their language and culture, and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse. The vast majority of Métis survivors, however, are excluded from the settlement. While their schools were run by churches and sanctioned by the federal government, they were not paid by the government.
As an example, Mr. Chartier cites the exclusion of the Île-ala-Crosse boarding school in northern Saskatchewan, which was 50 kilometres away from a school that was included on the list for compensation.
“They were run by the same Oblate fathers and nuns,” he said in an interview.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine says the apology signalled that Canada is “breaking out of a time warp” in the way aboriginal people are viewed. Part of the mes- sage, he said in an interview, was that old attitudes and stereotypes are unacceptable, that aboriginal people must be treated fairly and equally.
There is a lot of work to be done and Chief Fontaine said he believes the apology generated goodwill to make progress in improving the standing and living conditions of aboriginal people in Canada.
“We want what you expect in your own lives,” he told the Senate on Thursday, the day after the apology. Those expectations include eradication of poverty, decent schools and housing, safe drinking water, fewer children in state care and fewer in prison.
“There are huge challenges before us,” he said. But receiving the apology showed “that anything is possible.”
At a reception after the apol- ogy Beverley Jacobs, head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, highlighted a call for Canada to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But the next day, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl repeated the government’s months-long position that it prefers to work on practical matters at home rather than sign on to “flowery words” of a declaration of principles.
The five-year truth and reconciliation commission established earlier this month will hold hearings across Canada and create a historical account of the century-long assimilation effort at the residential schools. It is aimed at educating the public and encouraging reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.