Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 15, 2008
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine leaves
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
OTTAWA - Phil Fontaine considers the April 29 private audience he and three other residential school survivors had with Pope Benedict a "very significant" event during his 12 years as Assembly of First Nations national chief.
"Now we have received what we consider a very significant statement from His Holiness," Fontaine said. "It was what we were hoping to receive from the holy father."
"We've had an apology from all of the parties involved in the residential school experience," he said.
"Now with the circle closed, as it is, we can move into a post-apology era."
He said the pope's first words to him were, "I know you are suffering."
"Obviously, he acknowledged that survivors are still suffering but I believe the holy father was also referring to the fact our people are suffering," he said.
Fontaine make his comments when he announced he is stepping down as national chief at the end of July.
"I am very proud of the many accomplishments that our people have achieved since I first took office as National Chief in 1997," Fontaine said in a statement June 4.
He listed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and the June 11, 2008 apology to Residential School Survivors among the many victories for First Nations peoples during his three-term tenure.
Fontaine announced his upcoming departure a week prior to the June 11 National Day of Reconciliation, which marked the one-year anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's historic apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the Canadian government for the Indian residential schools.
Fontaine said 27,000 First Nations children are under state care, about 100 First Nations communities live with boil water advisories, and many experience desperate housing conditions and poor access to quality health care.
"What is of greater significance is what we are prepared to do together to address those issues that represent the greatest challenges for this country, including First Nations poverty," he said.
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Archbishop James Weisgerber said he knew Fontaine's retirement as chief "was in the works."
Weisgerber described Fontaine as sincere, clear-thinking, warm and a pleasure to work with.
"He's a man who is deeply dedicated to First Nations people, particularly to address poverty."
While a new leader will bring new gifts and vision to the table, Weisgerber said, he had faith the progress toward reconciliation will continue. "I believe the impetus has begun and I believe it has an energy that would be very difficult to derail."
APPLAUSE FROM STRAHL
Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said Fontaine's leadership had helped Aboriginal people forge "a strikingly new relationship with non-aboriginal people, and with the Government of Canada."
In a June 4 statement, Strahl also referred to Fontaine's experience as a survivor: "Torn from a loving and supportive Ojibway family, he spent 10 years as a child in the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba where he witnessed the full brunt of the pain and suffering that has become our tragic shared legacy."
"Far from becoming embittered, Phil channeled his dogged pursuit of justice into concrete actions that would ultimately transform our broken past into a relationship of healing and reconciliation," Strahl said.