Hail to the Chief

  • June 11, 2009

{mosimage}Phil Fontaine is leaving the Assembly of First Nations in July after serving three terms since 1997 as National Chief. He will be missed. His accomplishments are many but perhaps Fontaine aptly summed up his own legacy in one succinct sentence: “We are now in a position to say we forgive.”

Fontaine’s years as National Chief were sewn together by a thread of reconciliation. That single theme — establishing harmony and friendship with the rest of Canada — dominated his tenure. Fontaine understood that a two-way relationship of fraternity and trust would only occur when First Nations peoples received a sincere apology for the many wrongs suffered over the decades. Then would come the difficult part: they’d have to forgive.

Under Fontaine’s leadership, reconciliation was a journey with three roads. First came a multi-billion-dollar compensation settlement between the federal government and First Nations people stemming from the national scandal of the residential schools. That was followed by last June’s apology in the House of Commons from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of all Canadians. Third came a Vatican audience at which Fontaine received an expression of sorrow from Pope Benedict XVI for the  conduct of some church members.

Fontaine deserves credit for spurring these remarkable acts of contrition and creating a framework that, if properly nurtured, could someday support a new, trusting relationship between the First Nations peoples and the rest of Canada. Instead of being embittered over his own experience at residential schools, Fontaine reflected a commitment to dialogue, respect, fairness and, as he once said, a belief that “Canadians are fair-minded, decent people.”

He always preferred negotiation over blockades as a tool for change, a position requiring courage in the face of opposition from some native leaders. But accepting apologies and granting forgiveness are, in his view, just the first steps towards total reconciliation. That will only come, he says, when the scourge of First Nations poverty is eradicated.

We share Fontaine’s hope that the “post-apology era” will see his replacement work with governments to bring jobs, health care, education, housing and general prosperity to First Nations families. According to a government study, the median annual income of a First Nations person over 15 years old and living on a reserve is $10,498, versus $29,480 in the rest of Canada. Compared to national averages, First Nations children suffer greater rates of disability, teens are more prone to suicide and adults more susceptible to several diseases.

Fontaine believes First Nations leaders must look past the sad history of residential schools and continue to partner with the Catholic Church and encourage church leaders to use their influence and resources to help alleviate native poverty. That is a worthy objective and is a cause that has been rightfully supported by Catholic bishops.

As he exits the national stage, Fontaine should be proud of his legacy and we should all be mindful of the considerable work still ahead.

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