Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Yesterday, one - and I must stress just one - of the major sources of grievance for Canada's indigenous peoples was addressed through the agreement in principle on residential schools. Indeed, it was quite a day for redress of all sorts (with the keyword being Indian albeit different usages thereof ) The Honourable Ann McLellan had also reached lightning conclusion to accept Bob Rae's Air Indian ruminations and hastily name him to fill the post of commissioner of inquiry, Bob had suggested (see for comment and links the immediately preceding entry below). But the busy Min also found time to announce Justice Frank Iacobucci's hard won deal for at-long-last compensation for Natives who'd been in the residential school system.

It would be much worse than a grouse to in any way detract from the legitimacy of this belated redress notwithstanding the ambient odour of the imminent federal election. This has been a long time coming. The residential school system, along with smallpox and the various laws that long existed to consign Canada's Original Peoples to the bottom of the social heap, left a tragic legacy in native communities, one that has echoed forward into the lives of today's youth in ways that many of them -like the rest of us - can hardly fathom. (Click here for the chapter on Residential Schools in the 1996 Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples)

What I do want to draw attention to first, however, was the concurrent refusal of the Minister to include an apology as part of the announcement. It's understandable if unattractive that while compensation negotiations are unfolding, a guilty party is hesitant to say its sorry for what it did. But are we not well past that now? Could our government not show a little more class and remorse than just to mutter about regrets as if our First Nations were victims of some externally caused natural disaster rather than the targets of brutal acculturative policy?

The level of compensation is also less than impressive at least if you cast your mind back to settlements with other aggrieved parties such as...the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney who received a tidy $2 million -- and a formal apology - after suffering the indignities of the Airbus affair. Now, I am not one of the many Mulroney-bashers and did not begrudge that settlement. But I can't help but compare the level of suffering, such as it was, that the former P.M. endured to the miserable lifetimes, indeed inter-generational traumas, foisted upon Canada's native population. It has been claimed with justification that no aboriginal person alive today has been unaffected by the residential school system. So, just for a lark, take Mulroney's settlement and multiply that times the roughly estimated numbers of Canadian Natives (about 1.2 million). The resulting national bill if we were to admit that their hardships were no less than Brian's? 2.4 trillion - more than a thousand times higher than the package now being so heartily endorsed across Canada,

That should put in perspective the cost of a simple but wide and thorough "sorry".