When I heard the prime minister of my country say the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ for the debacle of the Indian residential school system and the great stain it left on the collective Canadian conscience, I felt my heart break.
It broke for the thousands of nameless Indian kids who disappeared forever. It broke for the grief borne by thousands more who returned to the world lessened, shrunken, stunted by a woe both indescribable and unreachable.
It broke for the memory of generations of Blackfoot, Dene, Inuit and Ojibway for whom the world became a shattered, dark, forbidding place and for the light that was taken away forever.
But it broke for the country too.
It broke for Canada, this glorious homeland we share whose great and shining dream was shattered by a racist choice years before its own Confederation.
It broke for all of us who were denied, until yesterday, the brunt of the sad truth of our history.
Further, it broke for a small, sad Indian boy who still lives in me. Because I am a survivor of the Indian residential school system too.
Even though I never attended one, the soul devastation inherent in that process was manifest in my life.
The cultural and spiritual dislocation that came from forced removal of children from their homes and communities was evidenced in my life too.
Those spirit wounds are passed on from one generation to the next like a latent gene and I am the second generation of the abuses that were borne firsthand by my parents.
I was on the receiving end of their incredible rage, grief and despair.
When I was an infant, I suffered grave physical abuses at their hands that scarred me for life.
They’d been stripped of their identity, torn from the traditional teachings that guided them, and ripped from the nurturing of a spiritual way that sustained them.
They took their anger out on me and my siblings.
When I went to foster homes, it was to protect me from that wrath and the terrible onslaught of their alcoholism.
So I, too, have felt the force of dislocation and abuse that is the legacy of those schools.
I, too, have borne a darkness within me that was indecipherable and pervasive. I, too, am a survivor.
But the break that happened when I heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s words was not sadness or despair. Instead it was the final crumbling of the calcification that had hardened my heart for years.
It was the falling away of a barrier no longer necessary. It was a dam breaking and the emotions I felt were, release, joy, peace and a sweet, sad sorrow not built of guilt or judgment.
I have lived for nearly 53 years as a native person in Canada. Never did I expect to hear a government acknowledge the committed place of my people in the country’s history.
Never did I expect to be told that my culture was vital and that my spirituality was strong and empowering.
Never did I expect to hear a prime minister say ‘I’m sorry.’ The apology I heard in the House of Commons was enough for me. I can’t speak for other native people, and neither can any of our national native leaders.
Because the apology asked me to confront my own pain and find my own healing and that is the way it needs to be absorbed — in the private chambers of our own hearts.
When we find that healing place for ourselves, we need to come together and offer a collective forgiveness.
That is traditional, that is truth, that is justice and that is Indian.
I sat in my living room and watched history made. My history. Ours.
Native and non-native alike share that glorious moment of recognition and unification.
We were all brought together in a Canada that is capable of recognizing its wrongs, its waywardness, its shortsightedness and its ultimate humanity.
The sad little boy who lived for years without identity or belonging or culture celebrates today.
I am proud to day to be called Ojibway because I have survived an incredible invasion of my mind, body and spirit.
Stephen Harper told that story yesterday.
But I am also proud to be a native Canadian because my country is responsible, truth centered and free.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.