the popes shallow apology

There's an old saw that goes "when in Rome do as the Romans do." I'm not certain of the origin of that pithy take on fitting in but it certainly feels as though Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine has taken it to heart.

There’s an old saw that goes “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” I’m not certain of the origin of that pithy take on fitting in but it certainly feels as though Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine has taken it to heart. The Roman civilization self-destructed, burdened under its own weight and Fontaine seems bent on taking First Nations’ causes along the same route.

He and his hand-picked entourage journeyed to Rome for an audience with the Pope. What they came away with was an expression of sorrow played out for the media as an apology. It wasn’t. Taken against the backdrop of the entire residential school fiasco, the pontiff’s words were a shallow recognition of being found out. They were not a taking of responsibility.

But Fontaine, who has sadly become a one-issue leader, made it out to be a benchmark in Church/Indian relations. It wasn’t. Regret differs from apology like a slow dance differs from love. There’s contact, sure, but it’s trite. What the delegation returned to Canada with was not the healing Fontaine uses as a mantra these days but obfuscation.

Eventually, you have to quit being a victim. That’s what’s needed to be said here. As a First Nation person affected not only by the intergenerational impact of residential schools but by a plethora of other societal ills, there comes a time when you just need to get on with building a life. Fontaine’s relentless pursuit of apologies does nothing to advance native concerns—it just irritates people.

Because we’re more than victims. We’re more than survivors. We’re far more than an abused and belittled people looking for an emotional handout or the dubious benediction of words. If, as the Assembly of First Nations so blithely tells Canadians, we’re sovereign and we always have been, then we need to start behaving like it—and it has to start with leadership.

Sovereign peoples are autonomous. They decide their own fate. They choose their own path. They elect to build and sustain a civilization and a culture that reflects their inherent humanity, spirituality, worldview and ethos. A truly sovereign people do not wait for permission to transcend, evolve or heal—they just do it. Eventually, Phil, you have to start beating a new drum.

As long as our leadership presents us to Canada as wounded, emotionally and spiritually-crippled people, that’s the only way they can see us. It’s the only way we can see ourselves. Clearly, what’s needed are not a handful of high-level apologies but rather, a basketful of affirmations of our staunch dignity, resiliency, forgiveness and spiritual sovereignty.

Those images exist everywhere. In my travels I have met native people who have risen above everything to become vibrant, productive, creative lights for their communities. People whose life histories might cause Canadians to blanch. People whose experience on this Earth Walk might justify them in presenting themselves as victims, survivors and emotional mendicants.

But they don’t. Instead, they worked diligently and quietly at their own healing and emerged as role models for all of us. They don’t have household names or big resumes. They’re just people, native people, who have learned that recovery means re-covering yourself in spirituality, love, pride and humanity. Those are the images that foster reconciliation. Images of people who just quit being victims.

For instance, drink reduced me. When I was an active drunk and my life was out of control, I could only ever see it as that. As long as I persisted in trying to get people to see how much damage life had inflicted on me, the longer I avoided change. But when I learned to see myself and my life as something more, something other than darkness, I learned to transcend and to heal. It’s been years now and I am no longer a survivor of alcoholism. I’m a new and emancipated being. I’ve been re-covered in all the things booze washed from me.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t legitimate gripes and grievances that need redress. Canada’s history with First Nation people is shameful. In fact, the history of Canada is a history of its relationship with Aboriginal peoples. Nothing less. We are founding nations defrauded long ago of recognition of it. We don’t need others to tell us that. We only need to tell ourselves.

Our leadership needs to present our people, and Canadians in general, with images of native people beyond the realm of hurt, pain and loss. They need to promote us, not as the hunter-gatherers of apology and contrition, but as the proud, forward-thinking, empowered people that we are.

To do less is not to lead but simply to do as the Romans do—and watch your world crumble to pieces around you.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at