The anishnawbe word for “apology” is aabwehyehnmigziwin. That’s what PM Stephen Harper delivered last week to residential school survivors. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Connie Francis, he essentially said, “I’m sorry, dear. So sorry.”
And the First Nations people of Canada listened. Harper made a lot of people cry. But it was a good cry.
The PM was lamenting the misguided belief that “in order to save the child, we must destroy the Indian,” yet another fine government policy like the Chinese head tax or the unenforced prohibition on MPs dating female lobbyists with previous boyfriends.
The official aabwehyehnmigziwin was a long time coming. All of the churches that ran residential schools have issued their own version of “sorry.” In 1998, then minister of Indian affairs Jane Stewart offered an early, wimpy rendition, something about having “sincere regrets.”
I, too, have a lot of sincere regrets about some of my past relationships. But that doesn’t mean I apologize for them. Big difference.
I do find it odd that the penitents were Conservatives. Tories ought to have admired the residential school system, which was, after all, a fine example of downloading education costs – in this case handing over the responsibility for schooling native youth promised by treaty to four churches.
And it was the Conservatives who gave native people the vote in 1960. I guess that’s why the Ojibways call Stephen Harper the Kichi Toodooshaabowimiijim, which literally translates as “the Big Cheese.”
Was the aabwehyehnmigziwin sincere, and do I buy it? Yes, I suppose I do, though politicians shouldn’t be believed any more then Jerry Springer’s guests.
But Harper looked sincere. So did Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton – all privileged white men. It’s amazing how a good education can make you the empathetic leader of a federal party, and a bad education can get you an aabwehyehnmigziwin.
I am very fortunate. Neither I nor any of my immediate relatives attended a residential school. Instead, we were schooled at the Mud Lake Indian Day School, located on reserve. Still, many of the residential school policies extended to the communities.
My mother talks of not being allowed to speak Anishnawbe on school grounds, located just a few hundred metres from where she lived. Just the other night, I heard her reminiscing with her sister about making sure they never played under the windows of the school so the teacher wouldn’t hear them speak.
Many of the native people watching the historic moment were not survivors. But we all knew somebody, several somebodies, who had attended or were descended from a survivor. Just as all Jews were affected by the Holocaust in some way, all native people were victims of those institutions. That apology was for all of us.
What happens now? I don’t know. Maybe National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine and the gang should contact Maher Arar. He, too, was kidnapped suddenly for no logical reason and taken far away from his family for a long time, beaten, starved and terrified.