Act of Contrition

  • June 20, 2008

{mosimage}Hardly has there been a period in history in which our past sins have weighed so heavily on our shoulders. The enormity of humanity’s abuse of humanity — in fact of the entire planet — has never been so apparent to us.

So the mass apology has become an icon of our repentant age. Pope John Paul II used the apology to good effect, shining a light on the travesties of past church leaders, whether inflicted on women, indigenous tribes, religious dissenters or, in the case of the Holocaust, the Jewish people.

Apologies for various tragedies have been issued by government leaders in the United States, Britain, Japan, Ireland and Australia.

And now Canada. Over the last three decades, there have been several government apologies to various groups. The most recent is, of course, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to the victims of native residential schools, declared with great solemnity in the House of Commons on June 11. It follows apologies from others associated with this blight in our national history, including leaders of the churches (Catholics among them) whose organizations ran the residential schools for most of the 20th century, and even the Liberal government of 1998, which issued the first apology on behalf of the Canadian people for the deliberate policy of forcibly assimilating native children into mainstream Canadian culture — and all its appalling fallout.

While imperfect as an act of contrition (since those who did the deeds are usually no longer around to repent), such apologies help bring about healing between those who have suffered and those who are now responsible.

Most native leaders last week acknowledged that this policy will help heal the wounds of those who suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse in the residential schools. But it cannot and is not expected to do the entire job. To take the healing further, the government has established a $2-billion fund to compensate for pain and suffering, while past governments have already provided $400 million, along with contributions from the churches, to assist in the healing process.

Then there is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will begin this summer its five-year odyssey to paint a detailed picture of what actually happened between roughly 1870 and the 1970s in the 132 schools and their 150,000 students. To accomplish true healing, we urge the commissioners to insist on the full truth — both the bad and the good. For in those schools were many well-meaning and talented people who served as teachers and administrators, doing their best to help their young charges. Some former residents have acknowledged this, but their stories are too often dismissed because they don’t fit the popular image of the schools as dens of abuse. The innocent majority who operated these schools, especially the congregations of religious sisters who ran many of them, are also victims.

At some point, however, having focused so heavily on the past for so long, Canadians — whether victims, those in charge or just innocent bystanders — will have to move on to deal with the ongoing tragedy of the Third World conditions on so many First Nations reserves. Such conditions cannot be blamed on the residential schools, though in some cases they may have played an aggravating role. But to solve that thorny dilemma will take much more than an apology, or even government pay-out.

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