In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. . . . We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. –United Church Apology to First Nations, 1986
What are the ways in which a government can redress its oppressive actions against its own people? This question has been the subject of many discussions in the aftermath of episodes of mass violation of human rights and
. In some cases, such as the Holocaust, the international community set up a legal process to try the perpetrators in court. In other places, such as Chile, the government set up national commissions to investigate the crimes committed by former dictators and offer reparations to the victims.
Often included in this process, which is called transitional justice, are apologies and
(the subject of the next chapter). The goals of these elements in transitional justice are not only to shed light on past crimes and, in some cases, to sentence perpetrators of these crimes but also to help the groups involved in the conflict move on to more peaceful futures.
In 1969, the Trudeau government declared a new policy known as the White Paper. (For more on the policy, see Chapter 9.) The policy sought to do away with all the
and agreements with the
groups in Canada, beginning with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and integrate members of these groups as ordinary Canadians, thereby ignoring their legally recognized rights to cultural autonomy and self-government under the treaties and the Royal Proclamation.
The federal government soon faced growing opposition to this policy and was forced to withdraw the policy paper. Also, in the 1970s and early 1980s, numerous Supreme Court cases and agreements upheld some of the land rights and treaties First Nations had signed with the government decades before.
Although the United Church responded first and apologized in 1986 for its role in the operation of the residential schools, the schools and their tragic effects on their students went unacknowledged by the leadership of the main bodies running them: the Catholic orders and the Anglican Church. Both were slow to respond to the changing tide, and, concerned about the legal and financial consequences of any admission of wrongdoing, they remained silent.
But a shocking testimony given in October of 1990 shattered the silence in which the abuse in residential schools was shrouded. Phil Fontaine, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, decided to speak up about his experience in a residential school in Fort Alexander. On national television, the soft-spoken chief reported on a meeting with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Boniface (Manitoba) during which he described widespread physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in the residential schools and demanded a thorough inquiry.
He called for the church to set up a committee to investigate allegations of the sexual misconduct of its clergy.
This was not the first time such allegations had surfaced (the topic was sometimes discussed in private conversations between former students of the residential schools). But this time, the repercussions were different. The media picked up Fontaine’s story, and it was featured in many major media outlets. A flood of confessions followed, and the stories of many abused students, referred to since as
, came to light. Soon the churches were forced to acknowledge their actions in the past. Cautiously, some say even reluctantly, they offered their apologies.