The government of Australia has apologized to the Aborigine population.
On February 13, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a four-minute apology in Parliament. Its intent was to “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.”
Greeted with a standing ovation both inside and outside the chamber, the message marked a new beginning in government/Indigenous relations.
Rudd’s Labour party directed its contrition to the Stolen Generations, the thousands of Aboriginal kids who were scooped up and out of their lives and placed in white homes and communities.
It was assimilation, genocide wrapped in the cloth of care, and eerily similar to Canada’s residential school policy.
While the majority of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders greeted the statement with celebration, there remains a significant number who wait for action.
Certainly, Rudd’s government called for bipartisan action to improve the lives of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and the apology was warranted and long overdue, but the jaded wait to see the action behind the words.
Here in Canada, a recent Angus Reid poll indicated that Canadians were slightly in favour of its government doing the same. Forty two per cent of respondents wanted an official apology to Native Canadians while thirty nine per cent disagreed.
Nineteen per cent of people polled were undecided. Had the poll been directed to Aboriginal peoples, the nay-sayers and the ambivalent would be a definite minority.
In 1998 the Liberals issued a formal apology for residential schools, and after the compensation package was finalized and delivered there’s a touring commission seeking truth and reconciliation. There’s been a fair amount of activity in the decade since and Native people would overwhelmingly welcome a larger, more comprehensive apology.
But in all likelihood that will never occur.
Australia’s former Howard government blatantly refused to issue an apology. Its thinking was that such a course would commit the nation to tremendous cost, and certainly $1.9 billion in residential school compensation later, Canada holds the same view. But it’s more than that.
There’s been a great stain on this country’s soul as well, and the seepage began on contact. The history of Canada is the history of its relations with Native people. There’s simply no getting past that.
When the first booted foot set foot upon these shores the process of obliterating moccasin prints began. Now, five centuries later, that on going history continues.
My academic friends refer to a ‘post-colonial’ mentality and ethos. Well, the truth is, that when you’ve been oppressed and marginalized, there’s never a post. You’re always being colonized. It just comes in different wrappers and those boots just keep on stomping.
So an apology would have to take its context from the initial declaration of Canada as terra nullius. Empty. Unpeopled. That was the first wrong. Strangely enough, treaties needed to be struck with people who didn’t live here.
An apology would have to refer to abrogation of those same treaties, the implementation of an act and a bureaucracy to manage their promises, and the history that says white explorers discovered the span of the country.
An admission of wrongdoing would need to include purposefully ignoring the presence of societal and cultural structure, and the later banning of the spirituality that were its foundations.
So that will never happen. Because in order for that apology to come, some government would have to admit that the history of Canada is the chronicle of flagrant abuses of native people. From the very beginning.
For such an apology to have impact, it would have to say that history as it is written is not history as it happened.
How do I know this? Well, a few years ago a sobriety mentor of mine told me the whole secret to apologies. He said that if my intent was to apologize for behaving like a jerk, then it was vital that I no longer behave as a jerk. Simply put, but apt.
See, I’ve had a lot to apologize for in my life. As an alcoholic, a binge drinker prone to sudden explosions of drunkenness, I hurt a lot of people by my choices and the degree of my illness.
Further, as a traumatized child, the manifestations of that great unhealed hurt inflicted even more harm on those around me. It was largely the reason I drank, and it was the root cause of the hurt I inflicted.
That same mentor also told me that in the Native way, an apology is never saying sorry for the act. Instead, it’s contrition for the flaws in my make up that caused me to behave the way I did.
It’s a commitment to understand and address the flaws to avoid recreating the hurt. It’s owning the human failures in myself, admitting them and taking action to change.
There’s no simple ‘I’m sorry’ required. Instead, there’s a displayed commitment to change. There’s a profound alteration in how I behave.
It’s how you amend things. It’s how you correct a wrong. Even though the wrongs of my past can’t be erased, they can be soothed by a more accountable life, the enactment of a clearer vision.
No one I hurt as an active drunk is sorry that I’m sober and living well.
For Canada to apologize for its history of mistreatment of Native people would require great soul searching and great change.
It would require a commitment to address the collective injury of people as exemplified by the residential school agreement. It would require a public recognition of the false history of the country we’ve all been educated in.
Who can name the scout who guided Radisson and Grosieliers or David Thompson?
Who can translate the name Manitoba? What is the impact on Confederation of the Two Row Wampum Treaty? What was the price paid for one Beothuk ear? Why was a spiritual ceremony like the Sun Dance outlawed and banned?
These are questions that simmer in the heart of the real history of Canada and to address them and apologize for their exclusion and omission would require a tremendous display of heart itself.
Sadly, I don’t believe that the current government has that much heart. Whether future ones do will remain to be seen.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.