Ottawa Apologizes to Natives

A few sentences into his historic speech in Ottawa last week, Phil Fontaine's eyes began to well with tears. The silver-haired grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations tried to carry on.

Ottawa Apologizes to Natives

A few sentences into his historic speech in Ottawa last week, Phil Fontaine's eyes began to well with tears. The silver-haired grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations tried to carry on. But as his voice faltered, it was apparent that the long-awaited apology for the brutal treatment of native children in residential schools - delivered moments earlier by Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart - had awakened painful personal memories. In the four decades since leaving a residential school in Fort Alexander, Man., Fontaine has spent countless hours with counsellors, trying to come to terms with the physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of priests after being taken from his family at age 7. Clutching a sacred eagle feather, he spoke of the moment as a new beginning for thousands of similar victims. "We honor you," he said, "and pray that the creator guide your healing process."

But while Fontaine's emotion seemed genuine, the government's admission may also yield political dividends for the AFN leader. As the most influential spokesman for native Canadians, Fontaine must deal with a growing chorus of unmet demands from the aboriginal community. The $350-million healing fund that Stewart announced during the same ceremony, for instance, fell far short of the billions in new spending recommended by the November, 1996, report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. And some aboriginal leaders were quick to dismiss the government's new action plan for natives - arrived at in consultation with the AFN - as simply more vague promises. Wringing a statement of atonement from Ottawa for the residential schools at least gives the grand chief, who was elected last August, something concrete with which to prove that his conciliatory approach works. "This was a litmus test," stressed Roland Crowe, chief of the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan. "He's off to a good start. Now he must prove that he can go on from here."

Already, one thing is certain: for the first time since masked Mohawk protesters and Quebec police exchanged gunfire during the standoff in Oka, Que., seven years ago, relations between natives and Ottawa have lost much of their confrontational edge. Fontaine, by nature, is a consensus-seeker and deal-maker. That makes him far different from his uncompromising predecessor, Ovide Mercredi, whose all-or-nothing approach to native sovereignty alienated the government. In contrast, Fontaine and Stewart - an up-and-comer in the Chrétien cabinet with well-tuned political antennae - have a personal rapport. In fact, Fontaine had his first meeting with Stewart within an hour of replacing Mercredi as grand chief, and since then has worked behind the scenes to help craft the government's response to the royal commission.

Not all native groups are happy with that relationship, preferring Mercredi's up-front style. "With Mercredi, we knew who we were getting," says Roy Little Chief, former chief of the Siksika First Nation in Alberta. "Fontaine scares me because we don't know what kind of deal he will make with the Liberals." And last week, Inuit, Métis and non-status Indian leaders - who are not represented by the AFN - charged that they had been excluded from discussions with Ottawa as it forged its response to the $58-million royal commission.

Certainly, the problems facing aboriginal peoples seem overwhelming - and the solutions far from easy. The report makes 440 recommendations, including a 20-year, $30-billion spending program designed to improve the woeful lives of many aboriginal people. Chief among the commissioners' concerns are the stunningly high rates of poverty, family breakdown, suicide and substance abuse that plague Canada's 1.3 million aboriginals. If such problems are not fully addressed, the report says, Canada's native peoples will be consigned to a bleak future little different from their recent past.

According to Stewart's advisers, there is a good reason for Ottawa's muted response to the report. The government is anxious not to appear patronizing - repeating the all-too-familiar scenario in which white bureaucrats and politicians decree how best to solve aboriginal problems. Instead, Stewart has said she plans to use the report as a guide and, rather than prescribe solutions, seek them in partnership with the AFN and other native organizations. "We can't change everything overnight," she said. "But we can certainly get started."

As a result, last week's announcements included few specifics. Stewart talked generally about programs to combat high rates of AIDS, tuberculosis and suicide and to preserve aboriginal languages, as well as an independent land claims tribunal. And she tried to dress up the government's response to the royal commission by making $250 million the Liberals had already set aside for everything from housing on reserves to special child tax benefits for natives sound like first-time commitments. In reality, Ottawa's pledge amounted to only $350 million in new money for community-based healing as a first step in dealing with the legacy of residential schools.

It was also clear that the government took pains with the wording of the apology, which stated only that Ottawa was "deeply sorry." By stopping short of admitting responsibility for the abuse of residential school students, the government avoided weakening its defence in some of the 260 legal actions launched by former students. Still, the admission seemed enough to at least partially placate Fontaine. Last week, he said the statement and healing fund convinced him to drop his demand for a national inquiry on residential schools. Like Stewart, he appeared more intent on turning the page and looking ahead to the day when Ottawa has more money to spend. Yet in spite of that hopeful front, after 40 years of living the nightmare of the abused, Fontaine knows something the Indian Affairs minister may not: there are some maladies that even time and good intentions cannot cure.

The Politics of Apology

Pierre Trudeau was never much inclined to say "sorry" for anything, and the suggestion that a prime minister should apologize for the treacheries of past governments was the kind of phoney political balm he found easy to dismiss. "He knew that historical apologies might make people feel better, but he also believed once you started apologizing for one bad act of history, you'd never stop," recalls onetime Trudeau aide Tom Axworthy, explaining why his former boss resisted constant appeals for Ottawa to formally apologize to Japanese-Canadians for their internment during the Second World War. "Trudeau was more interested in what you could do for people today. Fixing the past was for historians."

As usual with Trudeau, beautiful theory. But it is doubtful that his cold, analytical defiance would play well in the gimme-a-hug political culture of the late 1990s, where empathy and symbolic gestures so often substitute for real action. That partly explains why Jean Chrétien - another prime minister who would rather stonewall than show a soft side by saying "I'm sorry" - was not present when his government issued a formal apology to Canada's aboriginal peoples last week. Chrétien's absence was not lost on some chiefs, who grumbled that the apology lacked prime ministerial weight, was weakly worded and was not broad enough. But to those who remember Chrétien's mulish refusal to apologize for his party's GST flip-flop, last week's statement was another sign that, these days, to govern is to know how to show just enough regret.

Clearly, the modern clamor for fixing history is a global phenomenon. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist organizations want to ban Prince Charles from ceremonies marking 50 years of independence unless he apologizes "for all the wrongs done" during British rule. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton, two of the most accomplished empathy politicians of their generation, have recognized the potential value in atoning for history; Blair apologized this year for Britain's role in the 19th-century Irish famine, while Clinton has kicked around the notion of a formal apology for slavery. The appeal is obvious - regrets for past atrocities cost nothing on their own, they can make people feel better and, best of all, they are other people's mistakes you are apologizing for. For Brian Mulroney, issuing a formal apology to Japanese-Canadians was a no-brainer.

And yet to have any political value, the apology has to be seen as sincere (after trying to avoid the arm of the law for years, it is doubtful Alan Eagleson won much sympathy with his mumbled mea culpa in a Toronto courtroom last week). "Apologies come out of the crisis management literature of the 1980s," says pollster Frank Graves of the Ottawa firm EKOS. "Until then, the practice had been to stonewall, so for a while, 'fessing up responsibility was a bit of a novelty. But it's no longer fresh, and people judge you on your sincerity." That's why Allan Rock's first, churlish apology last year to Mulroney over the Airbus affair was not convincing. Rock had to repeat it, bending his knees just a bit deeper. When Rock took the stage to express sorrow last fall for the federal government's role in the tainted blood scandal, the response from the victims was: fine, but how much money will you ante up to compensate us for your mistake?

With the natives, Chrétien's inherent reluctance to offer an apology was overcome by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine's argument that it would clear the air in a suspicious relationship. The fact that Fontaine had to convince the Liberals on the merits - and that it took months of bureaucratic anguish to get the wording right - hardly suggests that Ottawa's "deeply sorry" came straight from the heart. If the baggage of history suddenly ceases to obstruct progress in the present, then confessional politics will show some real value. Otherwise, apologizing for history may just fade out of fashion.


January 19, 1998