Apology long overdue

Today Canada celebrates its rich multicultural society – its freedom of religion and culture, but that was not always the case. In present day there would be outrage if such freedoms were denied, yet our history reveals a dirty secret that took years to expose and will take many more to heal. 

This week marks an historic step in the right direction. The government of Canada issued a long overdue apology, on behalf of Canadians, to those who suffered as a result of residential school policies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserves credit for his leadership on this point. It is a message that each of us should reflect on and understand.

Imagine being plucked from the safety and security of your home and being forced to deny your heritage – both  language and culture – essentially your very being. Then, many suffered the even greater injustice of physical and sexual abuse.

 For the first time since government policy dictated ripping children from their family to receive an education outside of their immediate community, the government will say “sorry” for such a catastrophic mistake. Setting aside the rights every Canadian values, common decency would suggest plucking children from homes only to face deprogramming was very wrong.

Canada’s history with the Native population is not a proud one.  Canadians know little about its Aboriginal peoples – our shared past, nor present day living conditions and challenges. The history of Canada’s first people is hardly complete, having been revised to handily ignore their shabby treatment since Europeans descended on this continent.

While delivering print jobs between here and Sarnia this past spring, we drove through the Ipperwash region. Poverty and Third World conditions abound, from the brief glimpse we had heading back home, and the reality is those images are echoed right across this country.

In the News, we have seen and heard stories about tainted drinking water, the evacuation of an entire community as their reserve faces rising flood water once again, ongoing land development issues and unresolved treaties, and unprecedented violence within their own community when a baby was shot during a drive-by.

Best intentions to meet the needs of our native people continue to fail. They are plagued with issues.

 The answers for that are numerous, whereas solutions to housing, education, and even self-government are elusive. How ignorant to believe we knew better and implemented such policy.

According to the 2006 census, there are 1,172,780 Aboriginals – Metis, North American Indian, and Inuit – in Canada. The annual budget of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in 2007-08 was $7.8-billion and it will drop in 2008-09 to $6.9-billion. The higher figure reflects compensation for claim settlements to victims of residential schools, but no price can truly compensate their pain and suffering and the long-term affects on our Native peoples and our country.

The impact of the residential school concept still resonates within the Native population. Tortuous conditions have been acknowledged and token payments were made to sufferers of this national disgrace. Recognizing that, the militant nature of some groups trying to right historic wrongs might be better understood.

Despite the billions of dollars dedicated to this department, we are no closer to resolving those issues and righting past wrongs. That is where Canada finds itself – repeating mistakes, hoping for better results.

The odds are not in the government’s favour for getting it right any time soon.

News of this apology coincides with the recent discovery of “undiscovered” tribes living in remote jungles of South America. If history has taught us anything, it is our hope that those tribes are left to live on their own, rather than falling victim to the irresistible urge to civilize “the savages,” which has already brought so much despair to native people around the globe.

May the apology this week serve as a chance for a fresh start here at home.