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Carolyn Bennett, MP



Apology to Aboriginal People … Means Nothing if Canadians Don’t Understand

Posted on May 9, 2012

The Interim Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was released, all too quietly, on February 24, 2012, a Friday in a week that Parliament wasn’t sitting. The report was elegant and direct. The Commission will need adequate funding to do its work property, it will need immediate cooperation of the federal government, which must release the documents the Commission needs to do its work in a timely fashion, and it will need the help of the Minister of Health in order to do its work in a safe manner that properly supports the healing of the participants. This was the reason for an interim report – an open plea for help.

The report was released on the day of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I watched the press conference from my hotel room in Vancouver. In spite of my total frustration with the Conservative government, I was excited by the 6th conclusion of the Commission:

6) Canadians have been denied a full and proper education as to the nature of Aboriginal societies, and the history of the relationship between Aboriginal and
non-Aboriginal peoples.

I was also excited by three recommendations that can be undertaken regardless of how intransigent the federal government may be:

4) The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government undertake a review of the curriculum materials currently in use in public schools to assess what, if anything, they teach about residential schools.

5) The Commission recommends that provincial and territorial departments of education work in concert with the Commission to develop age-appropriate educational materials about residential schools for use in public schools.

6) The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government work with the Commission to develop public-education campaigns to inform the general public about the history and impact of residential schools in their respective jurisdiction.

I immediately remembered our ‘Women in Politics’ day in St. Paul’s in 2005. Beverly Jacobs, the then President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, participated in our panel on advocacy. She recommended that Aboriginal studies should be taught in our schools at every level. She talked about the treaties, about the Indian Act, and the terrible history of residential schools. You could have heard a pin drop. At the end of the panel almost every question was for Bev; the girls wanted to know more.

I too had already begun my journey wanting to learn more and wanting to know what we could all do to help right these wrongs. My role as Minister of State (Public Health) was a crash course – with the help of friends like Bev Jacobs.

In 2008, John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada was released. I read it. I loved it. I bought copies for all our friends for Christmas. I’ve recommended it ever since and am supported by my First Nations, Métis and Inuit advisors, who tell me it delivers a truly important message.

I was intrigued by the reported success of New Zealand, where it seems that the Maori culture and history is part of the identity of every Kiwi. At the 2010 Women Deliver Conference in Washington, Dr. Keith Martin and I had the good fortune to have dinner with some New Zealand midwives and a very special Maori spouse. We learned that Maori studies are taught in age-appropriate classes from Kindergarten to Grade 8, and then in high school as a very popular option. They described how once very difficult problems, similar to those we are experiencing in Canada, were virtually turned around in a decade. They equated it with teaching environmental challenges and solutions such as recycling. When the children ‘get it’, their parents’ and grandparents’ understanding follows soon after!

Last June, after Bob Rae was chosen Interim Leader of the Liberal Party, he asked me which critic role I would prefer. I said “Aboriginal Affairs.” He said “really?” I said “Yes,” and then knew that if he gave me my preference, I’d better do a good job, because it was a file he cares deeply about.

I realized that I’d need huge help, but had loved working with our Aboriginal candidates in the past election – the amazing Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, former Premiers Joe Handley, Paul Okalik, Syndey Garrioch and Karen Young. I realized that I’d need the assistance of our Indigenous Senators Charlie Watt, Lillian Dyck, Nick Sibbeston, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, and the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission of the Liberal Party.

We commissioned a Primer on Aboriginal Issues from the Library of Parliament and then hit the road – visiting, listening, learning and being totally inspired!

From learning more about the Paul Martin Initiative, to the connections with OISE: Professor Suzanne Stewart, Steven Vanloffeld, and Julia O’Sullivan, and, from Ryerson, Pam Palmater.

With Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, founder of the Roots Exchange, as my fearless coach and partner, we did townhalls in St. Paul’s, Guelph, Hamilton, and Vancouver Quadra. At Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, we took up the challenge of beginning to expose Aboriginal issues to non-Aboriginals. The response everywhere, and at the Liberal Convention in January was truly heartening.

Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Interim Report, I have been pleased to be able to meet with the Ministers of Aboriginal Affairs in Alberta, BC, Manitoba, and Ontario, hoping that they will each be keen to take a leadership role on incorporating Aboriginal studies into provincial curricula. In Saskatchewan, the Office of the Treaty Commissioner has taken an important step and produced an educational Treaty Kit K-12, which has been provided to every school in the province. I’ve asked the Scouts to follow this lead, and hope that the Canadian Camping Association will also take up the challenge of presenting truly authentic exposure to First Nations, Métis and Inuit history and culture to all of their campers. The ‘people who were here first’ are the best possible interpreters of life ‘on the land’.

After the shocking revelations of Attawapiskat and the third world conditions of too many Aboriginal communities, it has been important to be able to introduce those Canadians eager to ‘do something’ to the work of Cindy Blackstock: I am a Witness and Shannen’s Dream. People are upset to see the Auditor General’s reports and especially her final interview.

But its also been hugely important to point out that Aboriginal peoples’ traditional ways that were discredited after contact with European people are now clearly the future:

1. The Medicine Wheel and the goal of keeping people well – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually is clearly preferable to the medical model that waits for people to get sick and tries to patch them up. A ‘repair shop in a sickness system’ will never be sustainable.

2. The Aboriginal pedagogy of ‘learning by doing’ is now proven to be clearly superior to the ‘western way’ of lining students up in tidy rows of desks and ‘filling the empty vessels’ with information. It doesn’t work for most students.

3. The Aboriginal imperative of being good stewards of the land. They knew that ‘clear cutting’ the forest and fishing out the lakes and seas were truly bad ideas.

4. The Aboriginal style of leadership is now taught in the MBA classes of the nation: ‘asking not telling’ and ‘inclusive decision-making’ are now considered ‘modern’ leadership.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology to the leaders of the National Aboriginal Organizations and the victims of residential schools in Canada.

The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation … Four years after the conclusion of the five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. On that anniversary, it is my sincere hope that aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in this country will fulfill the dream voiced in the very building 60 years ago by decorated aboriginal veteran Thomas Prince, a dream of first nations, Inuit and Métis people and non-aboriginal Canadians forging a new and lasting relationship. He said in his own words, “so that they can trust each other and…can walk side by side and face this world having faith and confidence in one another” … Until that day, we humbly offer our apology as the first step on the path to reconciliation and healing.

The apology set the stage. The Crown-First Nations Gathering in January was to ‘reset the relationship’. We hoped that what the Prime Minister said would be followed with real action.

The test was clearly what would be committed to in Budget 2012. It was tabled March 29. It was unbelievably disappointing. This was eloquently expressed in 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award winner Richard Wagamese’s poignant open letter to the Prime Minister on April 30, 2012 in the Globe and Mail.

Dear Prime Minister:
When I heard your words in the House of Commons that were deemed an apology for the debacle of Canada’s residential school system, I was heartened. At that time, it was nothing short of amazing to hear a prime minister use the word “wrong” in reference to Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people. Now, nearly four years later, I look at the astoundingly hurtful cuts to organizations whose sole purposes are the re-empowerment and well-being of aboriginal people, and I am disheartened. Hell, Mr. Harper, I am downright angry. You said “sorry” and you were not. In aboriginal context, an apology means that you recognize the flaw within yourself that made the offence possible and you offer reconciliation based on understanding the nature of that flaw. That reconciliation takes the form of living and behaving in the opposite manner. You have not done this. In fact, you have continued in the same vein that made the original apology necessary.

The details of the horrific cuts to Aboriginal health programmes and the disgust with respect to the gutting of due process and environmental protection are documented on my website and those of the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. While we rant against the terrible decisions of this government and the betrayal of the commitments for healing and reconciliation, there are things we can do.

We’ll start by showing up as witnesses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Toronto on May 31, and June 1 and 2. We’ll find genuine ways to celebrate National Aboriginal Day and week.

We can and must work every day towards the goal of building trust between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal education of non-Aboriginal Canadians is an essential step in the healing and reconciliation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples; the only way to correcting the greatest social injustice in our country. Justice Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made the point eloquently that until all Canadians properly understand the history and the damage done by a century of residential schools in Canada, the Prime Minister’s apology of June 11, 2008 will never be truly therapeutic, nor can it meet the desired goal of reconciliation.

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