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June 13, 2016

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has apologized to Aboriginal people in her province for "the abuses of the past." Wynne then got more specific in apologizing for "the policies and practices supported by past Ontario governments and for the harm they caused."

The Ontario premier's words highlight the ambivalence in the apologies coming from Church and state for more than a quarter-century about the evils inflicted on indigenous societies in Canada - we will apologize for the past, but not so often for the present. Apologizing for the present state of affairs would bind us to do something in short order to end those abuses.

To Wynne's credit, her apology came attached to a proclamation of a wide-ranging set of policies that will not only educate non-indigenous Ontarians about the sordid treatment of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people over the centuries, but also seek to ameliorate some aspects of the present reality.

The present and the future are the greater concern. Not much can be done about the past, except to apologize for it and to understand it as having shaped the current reality. Moving forward, reconciliation is the essential step.

However, not all Canadians are willing to accept even that much. They see the crisis of indigenous people as a bottomless pit into which governments endlessly shovel money. They will point to corruption on some reserves as evidence that indigenous people are the authors of their own fate, ignoring the fact reserve residents are the ones most exploited by corruption.

Still, the time is coming when we must move beyond apologies and, in a spirit of trust, build a partnership of reconciled peoples. A partnership is a relationship of equality, one in which both parties have equal responsibility for moving forward.

Such a partnership will take money, something governments have in much larger amounts than do Aboriginal organizations. It will also mean putting an end to white paternalism and indigenous victimhood. Without a doubt, Aboriginal people have been and continue to be victims just as white paternalism has not gone away.

However, progress will not happen until entrenched attitudes change. Reconciliation is hard work and can involve misunderstandings of even the other side's best intentions. Money and programs are necessary to reconciliation. Yet, even more essential is that which cannot be legislated - getting to know each other and to develop new attitudes of trust and appreciation for the gifts of a different culture.