Apology a Long Time Coming

by Reuel S. Amdur

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell buttonholed me at the reception. “I’d like you to meet Bruce Charley, one of my constituents. He’s here from about as far away as you can get, from Old Crow.” It was an unorthodox kind of celebration, coming before the momentous event rather than after. The Assembly of First Nations buffet and celebration took place in the ballroom of Ottawa’s Westin Hotel, on the eve of the residential schools apology.

The occasion was attended by school survivors from across the country, their families, representatives of Aboriginal organizations, supporters from the wider community, and politicians. Members of Parliament from all four parties were there. Chuck Strahl, the Tory Minister of Indian Affairs, who has played an important role in pushing the Aboriginal envelope, was there, along with Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois. Bagnell said that it was an event “that had to happen.”

Bob Rae told the First Nations Drum that the apology was “a wonderful event in the history of the country, but it is never too late to start on the road to reconciliation.” His leader, head of the Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion, spoke of the forthcoming apology as a step “to get over our worst mistake.” Following Stephen Harper’s apology on the part of the government, Dion added his own apology for the Liberal Party’s role, as it was the party in power for most of the last century.

Perhaps NDP leader Jack Layton made the most perceptive evaluation of the impact of the forthcoming apology, calling it “transformative”. The evening event and the apology and other happenings on June 11 brought forth waves of emotion. The word that comes to mind is cathartic, a kind of resolution of past bitterness and hurt. Uncharacteristically for him, Prime Minister Harper gave Layton credit for his tireless help and encouragement in making the apology a reality.

At the evening program, Fontaine told those gathered, “the worst is over. We have closed the door on this shameful chapter of Canadian history.” Mary Simons, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, hit a high note with her remarks. She spoke of the comfort and remembrance that would follow the apology:

“Comfort that the sad history and sad legacy of abuse at schools attended by Inuit and other Aboriginal students will be fully and forcefully exposed to the public eye; comfort that the various efforts in the past to deny, minimize, or rationalize that abuse will be forever discredited; comfort that the accountability of the government of Canada will be acknowledged and that an apology will be given.” And “remembrance of all of us who have ever been taught or made to feel shame or guilt for who and what we are.”

After the actual apology on June 11, Chief Fontaine spoke to the cheers of the large crowd gathered in the House. He spoke of the “achievement of the impossible.” He told everyone that there would be Aboriginal “survival in this land—forever.” The apology “stripped white supremacy of its authority.”

After the high emotion, after the catharsis, there is still much to be done. Many Aboriginal people across the land were unconcerned or even unaware of what was happening in Ottawa. They were too busy dealing with their daily life and their problems. Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale told the First Nations Drum that the apology was but “the first step along a very long road.” He pointed to the 2006 Conservative budget, which slashed money for housing, water, education, health, governance, and economic development.

As Fontaine told the First Nations Drum, “The apology is just the beginning. Now the real work on elimination of poverty—which will need an investment of billions of dollars—must begin.” Or, as Mary Simons put it more succinctly, “There is work to do.”

It would be amiss to end without acknowledging at least some of the truly outstanding performances at the evening event. Opera singer Mavis Callihoo was in fine voice. The stunningly spectacular costumes, with feathers and spangles, added to the intricate dancing, drumming, and cries of the Whitetail performers. They would have made it a memorable evening even without the far more serious business to address.