Chief Fontaine leaves a legacy of reconciliation

  • June 11, 2009
{mosimage}OTTAWA - The pending departure of Phil Fontaine will not halt the progress towards reconciliation with First Nations peoples, predicted Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Archbishop James Weisgerber.

Fontaine, who served three terms since 1997 as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July. A race is underway to select his replacement.

In describing Fontaine as sincere, clear-thinking, warm and a pleasure to work with, Weisgerber said he had faith that  the incoming Chief would use his gifts and vision to continue the work of mending relations between First Nations peoples and the rest of Canada.

“I believe the impetus has begun and I believe it has an energy that would be very difficult to derail,” said Weisgerber in an interview from Winnipeg.

Weisgerber praised Fontaine as “a man who is deeply dedicated to First Nations people, particularly to address poverty.”

“He took the risk to disclose himself about his (residential schools) experience,” Weisgerber said. “He encouraged other people to do so and persistently moved forward with that.”

Fontaine expressed pride in the many achievements during his term. His legacy includes the $1.9 billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2005, the Government of Canada apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 to survivors of residential schools and April’s personal expression of sorrow by Pope Benedict XVI for the “deplorable conduct of some members of the church” at residential schools.

Fontaine considers the April 29 private meeting in the Vatican between the Pope, himself and three other residential school survivors as a “very significant” event of his time in office.

He said the Pope’s first words to him were, “I know you are suffering.”

 “Obviously, he acknowledged that survivors are still suffering but I believe the Holy Father was also referring to the fact that our people are suffering,” Fontaine said.

“Now we have received what we consider a very significant statement from His Holiness. It was what we were hoping to receive.”

Fontaine announced his departure a week prior to the June 11 National Day of Reconciliation, which marked the one-year anniversary of the historic apology in the House of Commons by Harper.

“We’ve had an apology from all of the parties involved in the residential school experience,” he said. “Now with the circle closed, as it is, we can move into a post-apology era.

“We now are in a position to say we forgive.”

Fontaine said 27,000 First Nations children are under state care, about 100 First Nations communities live with boil-water advisories and many experience desperate housing conditions and poor access to quality health care.

“What is of greater significance is what we are prepared to do together to address those issues that represent the greatest challenges for this country, including First Nations poverty,” he said.

In a historic visit to the CCCB plenary last September, Fontaine said reconciliation would not be complete until First Nations poverty was addressed. He appealed for help from the Catholic Church. CCCB justice and peace commission secretary Francois Poitras told a June 3 news conference First Nations people would have the bishops’ “full support” in the fight against poverty.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said Fontaine’s leadership had helped aboriginal people forge “a strikingly new relationship with non-aboriginal people, and with the Government of Canada.”

He issued a statement that praised Fontaine for overcoming a difficult childhood to become a leader for his people.

“Torn from a loving and supportive Ojibway family, he spent 10 years as a child in the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba where he witnessed the full brunt of the pain and suffering that has become our tragic shared legacy,” said Strahl. “Far from becoming embittered, Phil channelled his dogged pursuit of justice into concrete actions that would ultimately transform our broken past into a relationship of healing and reconciliation.”

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