Rack up another one on the residential school apology meter.
In a historic Vatican meeting, Pope Benedict XVI offered his “sympathy” to Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, aboriginal elders and residential school survivors. The Pope admitted that some students experienced anguish from the “deplorable conduct of some members of the church” and offered them his “prayerful solidarity.”
The carefully chosen words are meaningful expressions of contrition, but they aren’t exactly the mea culpa that Natives have come to expect. The Pope never used the word “apology” or asked for forgiveness. There was no”I’m sorry.” Fontaine says the words are sufficient, but he has a history of changing his mind.
The federal government first apologized to Natives in a 1998 Statement of Reconciliation. It said “we are deeply sorry” for the trauma experienced by Natives at residential schools. Fontaine said it was a great honour for him “to accept the apology of the government and people of Canada.”
We all know how long that lasted. Ten years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to Fontaine’s persistent calls for another apology by apologizing . . . again. The residential school apology count now stands at seven and includes two government apologies, two from the United Church (1986 and 1998; the first was rejected) and one each from the Catholics, the Anglicans (1993) and the Presbyterians (1994). Native leaders may count each apology as another victory, but the victims increasingly seem immune. As a result, the Pope’s words weren’t enough for Manitoba chief Ron Evans. He told reporters, “It’s good to say you’re sorry, but you should be able to restore what you have actually taken away.” Nor were they enough for Chief Bill Wilson. He called for the Catholic Church to “open the vaults, the hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars that it stole . . . and make the lives of aboriginal peoples better. The lives that they ruined.“Others demanded to know how the Church was going to “restore the values, the People’s languages and lives?”
The real problem is that Native leaders have sown the seeds of discontent for so long, no words or acts will ever be sufficient. They’ve told Canadians, governments and churches that the schools are the root of all current Native problems. So now natives have an erroneous expectation that those responsible for the schools have to fix all Native problems before apologies can mean anything.
But fixing everything isn’t the function of an apology. An apology involves acknowledging the truth, showing remorse and making restitution if possible. The words have been said multiple times over two decades; the remorse seems to be genuine and restitution has been/is being paid to all students—abused or not. There is no requirement of proof for those who claim abuse and the amount set aside for compensation, a healing fund and a truth and reconciliation commission is over $2.5 billion dollars.
The truth is that the vast majority of Natives never attended residential schools. In 1960, there were approximately 9,100 Natives in residential schools compared to 40,600 students in regular schools.
The truth is that a vast majority of Natives professed Christian beliefs and wanted their children to attend these schools. In 1962, when Indian Affairs wanted to close the United Church-operated school near Calgary, the Stoney Nation hired a lawyer to oppose the closure.
Some figures suggest the number of compensation claims represent one-in-five students (including sexual/ physical abuse and cultural deprivation claims). That’s an appalling and horrific statistic, but it still means that four of five students—80 per cent—were not abused.
So how can the residential schools be the root cause of every Native problem?
I don’t mean to diminish the suffering experienced by some natives. I acknowledge the utter frustration they must have felt for years when they had no means to seek justice or healing. But Native leaders have sold their people the expectation that all their ills come from—and must be fixed—by those responsible for the residential schools. With such expectations, it’s little wonder that even powerful words leave them empty and demanding more.