A belated but necessary apology

TheStar.com – comment – A belated but necessary apology
June 17, 2008. John Croutch, Community Editorial Board

I am writing this for all those Canadians who may question why the federal government needed to apologize to aboriginal peoples for crimes that many might consider to be no more than a regrettable chapter in a checkered Canadian past.

In reading this, you will notice that I choose my words carefully. I do so because I, like many aboriginal people, have become accustomed to being told that aboriginals do not hold a patent on suffering.

How many times have I been told that many people who are now citizens of Canada suffered far worse indignities in their own countries before finding sanctuary on Canadian shores? And I am further reminded that many immigrants, both in the past and still today, have encountered government policy in this country that is overtly racist.

However, government has evolved over time and the policies that once closed the doors to many immigrants were radically altered by the introduction of the points system.

Even so, I need not be reminded that even as this apology was being drafted, the current government was being accused by opposition parties of nudging the door closed again with the introduction of Bill C-50.

That being said, many immigrants have come from countries where any opposition to government policies was ruthlessly crushed. On arriving on Canadian soil they have found a democracy that permits dissent and have exercised this freedom to bring about change in government policy that reflects the demands of an ever-changing demographic. The system is not perfect but it has welcomed many people who would have faced an uncertain future in their own homelands.

During this same period, however, aboriginal peoples were pushed to the margins of society by policies enacted to eliminate the Indian. The government attempted to strip away aboriginal languages and cultures by establishing a residential school system that was, as Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent general of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, stated, meant to drive a “cultural wedge … between younger and older Indians.”

This, combined with forced adoptions and the contradictory practice of assimilation through isolation – also known as the reserve system – resulted in unfathomable damage to aboriginal families that is still being felt today.

Immigrant families who come to this country carry with them cultures, languages and spiritual practices that are openly accepted and constitutionally protected. Their sense of identity is intact and they retain a sense of pride in who they are.

This is not to say that aboriginal peoples have lost their identity. It has, however, been seriously eroded and the pride in who we are often has been overshadowed by the shame of being relegated to the lowest level of Canadian society.

This is the legacy of Canadian policy toward aboriginal peoples. This long-overdue apology will serve three purposes:

It is the initial step the victims and their families need to begin the healing process and to forgive the Canadian government and themselves.

It places the responsibility for these crimes where it rightfully belongs: in the hands of the federal government of Canada.

It finally allows the true history of Canada to be revealed, showing that the conditions in which many aboriginal peoples find themselves are not of their own making.

The playing field has never been level and, as a result, the resources of this wealthy nation have never been shared equitably with the first peoples who have always called this land home.

John Croutch is an Ojibway member of the Wikwemikong First Nations of Manitoulin Island who is attending the University of Toronto.

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