First Nations offer forgiveness

  • June 17, 2010
Strahl forgivenessOTTAWA - A national coalition of First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders have offered forgiveness to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for residential schools’ abuses.

They presented the Prime Minister with the Charter of Forgiveness and Freedom, a formal response to Harper’s historic 2008 apology in the House of Commons for Indian Residential Schools. The response took place at the National Forgiven Summit here June 11-13 that drew thousands of residential school survivors, their descendants and well-wishers from across the country.

“We’re going to see Canada a healed nation and today we are much more healed than before because we have been able to come to a place where we can say ‘I forgive,’ ” organizer Kenny Blacksmith told the summit June 12.

“This is the hour of healing and restoration for all our people,” said Blacksmith, who spent 11 years in a residential school, before presenting Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl with the charter.

The charter acknowledges the profound hurt aboriginal peoples have experienced in the policy that tried to “kill the Indian in the child” and separated them, often forcibly, from their families. It recognized “releasing forgiveness requires the exercise of an individual’s free will to choose to forgive,” and “that forgiveness is not political; it cannot be legislated.”

“Forgiveness is spiritual; it is borne of the unconditional love of our Creator.”

“This summit is about giving and receiving forgiveness — which is also difficult — and celebrating the freedom,” Strahl told the gathering, noting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hosting its first meeting in Winnipeg June 16-19.

“We continue to make progress with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement,” he said. “Everyone involved is determined to make it work.”
Strahl told journalists that he knew many survivors were not ready to extend forgiveness and many needed to be able to tell the commission the stories of how profoundly they had been hurt.

Herman Old Yellow Woman, an elder with the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, gave both Strahl and Blacksmith their peoples’ highest honour by performing the Capture Dance, a traditional ceremony that concluded with the presentation of a feather head dress and the right to do the Buffalo Dance.

“Five-hundred years later, on behalf of my ancestors,” Herman Old Yellow Woman said. “Welcome to my country.”

The summit began with a response to the churches. Among the religious leaders present was Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J. On his blog, Prendergast called the event “a very powerful experience” and “an emotional mutual act of asking for and granting forgiveness.”

The Prime Minister was unable to attend the summit, but sent a videotaped message that played on the big screens over the stage at the Civic Centre. Harper called the charter a “powerful act” but said the gesture of forgiveness does not remove the obligations from “those who have done the wrong.” He assured those gathered of his continued commitment to reconciliation. 

“May your generosity of spirit release healing in all of our hearts,” he said.

On June 11, Harper met privately with 24 elders who are survivors of residential schools and 12 witnesses who are children of survivors. They presented him with the charter. Among those present were high profile native leaders such as Elijah Harper and former Cree Grand Chief Billy Diamond.

The Assembly of First Nations however, did not have an official presence at the gathering and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo stressed in a statement that the summit was independently organized.

“The charter cannot and must not be characterized as a statement on behalf of all First Nations people,” Atleo said. “While some of our people may be ready to forgive and take the next steps in their healing journey, many others are not. This must be respected.

“Forgiveness is an individual choice and a personal decision.”

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