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Without action, sorry is a meaningless word

This column is an opinion by David A. Robertson, a writer and freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, and a member of Norway House Cree Nation. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

My father was born and raised in Norway House Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, a Christianized reserve since its inception in the late 19th century. He was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Rossville, the centre of the community, when he got to know people in the United Church. 

He spent a lot of time with his grandfather by traditional adoption, Walter Keeper. Walter walked in two worlds, both as an elder in the church and a recognized elder and herbal healer in the community. He found a way to maintain balance; he would visit people to pray with them but heal people in the hospital, at doctors’ requests, when Western medicine wasn’t working. Dad remembered going to Walter’s place and seeing traditional medicines hanging above the porch. 

My father became a reverend and managed to find that balance. He worked in a residential school for a brief time when he was a young minister. He never told me how it felt working at one of those schools when he’d attended a day school, and his mother, Sarah, was a survivor of Norway House Indian Residential School. 

He told me that he cared for the children, and religion was a guide for that consideration. He told me once that religion didn’t do awful things; people did. I agree with him. People — men and women — in residential schools did horrendous things to children and used religion to excuse and encourage their behaviour.

My father wasn’t naive. He knew what had happened to children. He knew that thousands of children died in the schools. He knew there were unmarked graves in Brandon, Man., just two hours away from our home, and there were more across Canada. He knew that survivors and their families were affected by the Indian Residential School System. 

Sorry can be a powerful word

Stephen Harper’s apology was important to him. 

“The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,” Harper expressed on June 11, 2008.

Sorry can be a powerful word. It can also be a cop-out. 

I have five children, and my wife and I have raised our children to be accountable for their actions and grow from their mistakes.

It’s not good enough for one child to say sorry to another. It acknowledges the behaviour but does nothing to atone for or heal from it. When one of our kids does something wrong, they apologize for the wrongdoing, name what they did, and articulate the steps they will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

This might seem rudimentary, but the fact is that the federal government’s scorecard, when it comes to following through on the calls to action established by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, leaves a lot to be desired. They contend that they have completed 17 calls to action out of the 76 they are directly responsible for (which is already an unimpressive number). Still, three independent bodies, including the CBC, agree that the number of completed calls to action that are the responsibility of the federal government is either seven or eight. In 2020, five years after the calls to action were released, the Assembly of First Nations listed government progress on most of them as “little” to “moderate.” 

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Chief Tony Alexis first invited Pope Francis to visit Lac Ste. Anne in 2016. Six years later, he hopes the visit will help bring reconciliation and healing for Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation.

There have been a growing number of apologies by churches, politicians, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the first of which came as early as 1986 by the United Church of Canada. Whether or not those apologies have led to lasting change is up for debate. 

The RCMP, for example, may have apologized (twice) for doing things like forcibly removing children from their homes so they would attend residential schools. Still, they’ll not hesitate to arrest First Nations people, including elders, who oppose the construction of billion-dollar pipelines they believe will harm the environment. Coastal GasLink was not given consent by hereditary chiefs to cross Wet’suwet’en territory, but evidently, Wet’suwet’en and Haudenosaunee people were the ones who had broken the law. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will kneel at a memorial for the children found in unmarked graves on former Indian Residential School sites while at the same time contesting in court the federal government’s responsibility to pay reparations for the impact residential schools had on Indigenous nations.

How does that recontextualize these apologies? 

Earlier this year, Pope Francis apologized for the “deplorable” abuses committed against children who attended Indian Residential Schools. The Catholic Church was one of the hold-outs, refusing to apologize as recently as 2018 for its role in administering over 60 per cent of the residential schools in Canada.

Pope Francis is in Canada this week, meeting with Indigenous communities, and he has added to his earlier apology, expressing sorrow and asking for forgiveness for the church’s role in residential schools.

What does this all mean?

Well, nothing, if there isn’t any significant action taken following the Roman Catholic Church’s apology. Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair has called the apology an “empty gesture” otherwise. 

I’ve often said that the Indian Residential School System is not Indigenous but Canadian history. As such, every Canadian should feel responsible for walking the path toward reconciliation. This includes demanding action from politicians, the RCMP, and churches, to ensure these apologies mean something. 

An in-depth discussion on what actions the Roman Catholic Church should take would require another article entirely. It involves the return of stolen land, paying compensation owed to residential school survivors beyond the fraction that has been raised, releasing documents and stolen artifacts, holding perpetrators of abuse against children accountable for their actions even if it is posthumously, and supporting healing and wellness programs for Indian Residential School survivors, intergenerational survivors, families, and communities. 

Without action, sorry is a fleeting and, ultimately, meaningless word.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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