Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 23, 2008
Apology a step toward equitable relations
The Canadian government's apology to Aboriginal peoples for the policy of residential schools and for the abuse that took place in those schools is a welcome step forward in Canada's relationship with the First Nations. To say "I'm sorry" may not rectify past wrongs or current inequities, but it does recognize that the government's relationship with native people involved serious moral wrongs.
The admission of shame should imply a commitment to do better in the future.
Apology and repentance on one side and forgiveness on the other are one of the contributions of Christianity to civilization. Without repentance and forgiveness, the hurts of the past go on and on, magnified rather than diminished with the passage of time. Forgiveness gives the hope of a new beginning, one where there is healing and where hurts are washed away.
Some say the willingness to apologize fosters a culture of victimhood where those who have suffered injustice are encouraged to wallow in their hurts and refuse to take responsibility for their lives. This is the analysis of the comfortable, of those who have never suffered grinding day-after-day abuse and who know nothing of how difficult it is to rise above the abuse even after it has ended.
More problematic is the effect of the apology on the one who apologizes. Apology can be a mask for a strategy, not of humility, but of maintaining the imbalance of power through the appearance of humility. One could see that in the residential school apology with at least one government spokesman crowing about what a fine apology it was.
Those in government today - the ones doing the apologizing - were not the ones who perpetrated the wrongs. Their sorrow is for sins they did not personally commit. Their "repentance" for the sins of the institution is more impersonal than it would have been if it had been for their own personal sins.
The question for the next few years will be that of the genuineness of this apology. Will the political leaders who were so contrite on June 11 follow through with meaningful action to address the desperate situation of many Aboriginal people? What would such action look like?
If an apology is a spiritual act, that act still needs to be incarnated for it to be real. A government may apologize for the residential school system, but the current situation of native people is not solely the result of those schools.
If the government was guilty of a policy of assimilation, it was also paradoxically guilty of a policy of separation. The system of reserves has been paternalistic, but those reserves kept First Nations peoples out of sight and out of mind for decades on land that in many cases has no prospect for economic development. It is no insignificant matter that those Aboriginal people whose economic prospects are the best are typically those who have left the reserves and become integrated into urban life.
After many fits and starts in federal government policy over the last 40 years, it is the policy of separation and self-government that today holds the upper hand. Many of those who worked in the residential schools gave their lives out of the belief that those schools would foster the dignity of their students. It turns out they were in large part wrong. We need to ask whether today's policies will later be viewed with the same critical eye through which the residential schools are now viewed.
The apology was a step forward. But the path toward the full realization of the dignity of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society is not clear. Dialogue needs to continue and deepen. If there is mutual trust and an end to the treatment of native people as subservient, more progress will be made. But we should not expect that the road will always be straight or the path always clear.
- Glen Argan
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