Canadian natives wait while Aussies celebrate apology

  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}While Canada’s native people wait for an official government apology for the residential schools, Australian aboriginal people are celebrating their government’s willingness to say sorry.

In February the new Labour government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd broke years of Liberal Party refusal to apologize. On Feb. 12, Australia’s national “Sorry Day,” Australia’s government said sorry for a policy which removed thousands of mixed race and aboriginal children from their mothers, placing them with white families in the hope of eventually minimizing or eliminating Australia’s aboriginal population. Children removed from their families and made wards of the state between 1869 and 1969 are referred to as the “Stolen Generations.”

The apology has been greeted with a mixture of relief and gratitude by Australian aboriginal people, Gabrielle Russell, a project director for Australia’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission, told The Catholic Register.

“It has made a huge difference to how people are feeling,” said Russell in an e-mail.

Aboriginal Australians told Russell that the apology “validated and recognized their experiences.”

“They felt at last people understood and recognized what happened to them,” said Russell. “From an aboriginal point of view, many told us that they had not expected to live to see it. That meant an awful lot to them.”

For Canada’s native people it’s a nervous wait to see whether, when and how the Government of Canada will apologize. The Assembly of First Nations submitted a suggested apology to the government in May of 2005. An apology was promised by the Paul Martin Liberal government before the 2006 election. Though word has leaked that the Harper government has been working on an apology, there’s been no consultation with native groups, said the AFN.

“Indigenous people in Canada and Australia were victims of the same racist assimilation policies, practised in similar ways, causing similar harms,” said a statement from the AFN.

In 1997 Canada’s bishops apologized for official Catholic Church participation in the residential school policy which for most of the 20th century sought to eliminate native language and culture. Since 1998 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has  promoted a new understanding between the church and native people through the Catholic Aboriginal Council for Reconciliation.

The Anglican and United Churches, which also ran residential schools under contract with the federal government, have also apologized. Catholic religious orders and northern dioceses ran about 70 per cent of the schools.

Though Canada’s Parliament unanimously passed a motion of apology in May 2007, the government has yet to follow through on the Kelowna Accord commitment for a government apology. In March 2007 Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice suggested an apology was unnecessary.

A settlement agreement on behalf of 80,000 survivors of Indian residential schools has pried from the government a $1.9-billion compensation fund for the common experience of people who attended the schools, a further $5 billion in compensation to individuals, $125 million for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and a promise to establish a five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Native and church leaders are waiting to hear who the government will appoint as its three commissioners to the commission.

Canada’s eight northern bishops have been participating in the western Canada “Remembering the Children: The Aboriginal and Church Leaders’ Tour.” At an event in Saskatoon March 9 church and native leaders together demanded a government apology for the policy of assimilation and government appointments to the commission so it can begin its work. The TRC is committed to holding seven national events within its first two years, and it’s expected commissioners will travel across the country.

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