Apology, a compromise (Gathering strength: Canada's Aboriginal action plan).
The federal government's attempt to "deal with the legacies of the past" is being subjected to very close scrutiny this month. Aboriginal people can't help but feel that the government's apology and promises to change its ways are too good to be true.
Residential school victims and Aboriginal leaders are suspicious of the way the federal government's Statement of Reconciliation was worded. Some suspect that a fine legal hair was split when the government chose to express "profound regret" for its past actions and then say it was "deeply sorry" for the sexual and physical abuse suffered in residential schools.
Many are wondering if the words which were included in the statement intentionally avoided any direct admission of guilt by the government.
Some of the suspicion is related to comments made by the minister on Oct.31 which were reported in this newspaper. At that time the minister left reporters with the impression that an apology would not be forthcoming.
"Not only do I not think it's the wise thing to do, but the responsible thing to do to say `OK, there, I apologize' and then have to go on. It doesn't work that way for me," the minister said at the time.
The Jan. 7 apology to victims of physical and sexual abuse looks like the minister changed her mind. But Stewart told Windspeaker that wasn't the case.
"I was never adamant there wouldn't be an apology," she said on Jan16. "I was working on it."
AFN and government negotiators spent several months going over the form the government's response to the royal commission would take. A source who spoke on the condition that his or her identity not be revealed, said AFN negotiators had to pressure the government in several ways to get a direct apology for abuse victims. The AFN team had started with demands for a more comprehensive apology and a more detailed response to the royal commission report.
The Indian Affairs minister, in a one-on-one interview with Windspeaker in Edmonton on Jan. 16, said the apology was simply that -- an apology. When she was asked if suggestions were true that earlier versions of the government's response were more strongly worded, Stewart said, "No."
"No, there was nothing like that," the minister said. "It was more -- having listened to the words that people used when they talked to me and you read it in the press over and over again -- people just say `Why can't the government say we're sorry? Why can't they say we're sorry?'
"And so that's what I wanted to do. So that's where it came from."
Stewart could accept that Aboriginal people are looking for the catch in her announcement. But she wanted to emphasize that the apology is sincere.
"If `we're deeply sorry' isn't an apology, I don't know what is," she said.
Most Aboriginal leaders believe that the apology would have been made a long time ago if government lawyers hadn't advised against it because they believed an apology would expose the government to a number of civil lawsuits. Stewart said that isn't an issue.
"We're already settling claims out of court," she said, "and this is just a recognition that we are and have been a party to residential school systems."
National Chief Phil Fontaine told Windspeaker he feels Gathering Strength is a compromise that contains some significant victories for First Nations people.
"Let's keep in mind that we were involved in a negotiations process," the national chief said. "All of the discussions and negotiations were really from our part designed to ensure that the federal response was in keeping with the interests of First Nations people. In any process of negotiation there's give and take and you have to compromise when its appropriate to do so. In the end, the Statement of Reconciliation, the apology on residential schools, the $350 million fund, all of those are very significant advances for First Nations people."
Gerald Morin hopes that there will also be significant advances for his people.
"It's quite obvious the AFN and the Government of Canada have been involved in painstaking negotiations which have resulted in an active First Nations agenda," the president of the Metis National Council said. "What bothers us is there's no similar process for Metis, off-reserve people, Inuit people or Native women. Indian Affairs' traditional focus has been on-reserve and this new direction simply perpetuates past policy."
Morin said he was satisfied with the Statement of Reconciliation but concerned that the apology, and many other parts of the government's response, fell far short of the royal commission's recommendations.
"The apology isn't as strong as the one the Mulroney government gave to Japanese Canadians who were interned during the Second World War. It's just directed at residential schools," he said. "It's really very narrow. The experience of Aboriginal people in residential schools is really just one very small aspect of our dealings with Canada."
Willie Blackwater and his fellow former residents of the Port Alberni Indian Residential School in British Columbia will be taking their civil lawsuit to court in early February. Blackwater was unimpressed with the apology.
"They can grab every penny in this universe and put it in front of me and it won't make a bit of difference," he said. "It won't take away the pain."
The former school residents are suing Arthur Henry Plint, the former principle of the school who was convicted in 1995 of sexually assaulting 18 former residents. Blackwater said he didn't feel anything when he heard the Indian Affairs minister offer her apologies.
"Nothing. If any kind of apology is going to have any meaning, it's got to come from the top," he said. "It meant nothing because one of Prime Minister Chretien's flunkies gave it. Our group is going to settle for nothing less than an apology from the prime minister."
Marilyn Buffalo, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, was also critical of the government's announcement.
"This Statement of Reconciliation does not include an apology," she said. "An apology is more than an expression of regret. What is missing is the most important component -- an admission of error -- made in good conscience, without any reservation."
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|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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