Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When is sorry enough?

Later today, PMS will offer a formal apology for the abuse inflicted upon thousands of Aboriginal Canadians who went through the rightfully discredited residential school system. This for Canada is no less significant than the apology offered to the natives in Australia a few months ago for being dispossessed of their lands and similar abuses. One can only hope that this is a truly sincere apology and that it moves us forward and not back.

This should have been done years ago, when the true nature of the abuse became known to the wider Canadian community. The system was terrible for non-native orphans who were forced into a similar and parallel gulag, also run by the country's churches, and in no way should that ever be minimized either. It brought shame to the religious community, in particular the Roman Catholic Church to which I belong.

Coming as the revelations did during the late 1980s to early 1990s, I know that it had a decimating effect not just on the victims who were ignored by church officials who as their US colleagues had been doing (though it was not revealed until a decade later) been moving priests and nuns around to ensure they evaded prosecution; but a similar effect on enrollments at monasteries and divinity schools. There had been a general downward trend since Vatican II, but the revelations drove away many would be applicants who did not want to be tarred with the brush of being called a child molester -- they did not want to be accused of guilt by association.

Who could blame them? I was one of those dissuaded. And I like many other Catholics are furious that the Vatican City has given those who gave blind consent to the worst kind of abuse immunity from prosecution -- not the least of them the former archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts Cardinal Bernard Law who is now in an administrative post at the Holy See; just one reason why the late Pope John Paul II should not even be considered for sainthood, let alone put on the fast track for it.

But in some respects, there was a qualitative and quantitative difference when it came to natives. Since non-natives usually had the same culture as those teaching them their souls were not always implicated. For natives, however, having the double whammy of being abused and being told they were getting it because "they didn't have a soul" was the ultimate insult. Further as wards of the state, they did not necessarily have access to the same kinds of supports offered by provincial social services agencies since they were outside the jurisdiction of the provinces.

In this respect, compensation which began to be paid out last year was well justified, although in my opinion it would have been better to allocate the reparations as a top-up to monthly federal entitlements such as the Child Tax Benefit (for the relatively younger victims) or the Guaranteed Income Supplement (for seniors) and paid out for life with a guaranteed lump sum for the unexhausted portion of the annuity upon death to the victim's descendants. The stories of natives who don't know what to do with such a large one time amount of money is equally depressing.

Be that as it may, it does go back however to the point that not all those who were at the teaching and administrative end of the system were guilty of abuse. Many, indeed probably most, did not. I know for a fact at least one of my teachers -- a nun, from 7th grade -- was at one time previous to that assigned to a reserve in Northwestern Ontario. She said as much, and in fact was an early supporter of native sovereignty for Canada's Aboriginals, similar to the arrangement in the US where many federal and state laws don't always apply to reserves unless the tribal councils assent to them. There was nothing in her character that would have suggested she would have contributed to such abuse; in fact the code of conduct for her order had zero tolerance for that.

So, I do worry about those who were and continue to be wrongly accused.

The forthcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to offer a chance to heal, but it also needs to focus on the truth and ensure those who have been wrongly accused have a chance to vindicate themselves. I am concerned, though, that unlike other TRCs (most famously the one in South Africa) there is also no immunity (limited or blanket) being offered for those who are truthful about their victimization. It's not that abusers should not be held accountable; of course, they should. But, while there is no statute of limitations in Canada there is also a concern that those who did such things will not see a need to even testify; after all, many of the older generation still think they did nothing wrong and that the attempted literal and cultural genocide of Aboriginals to which they contributed was entirely justified. Thus the TRC here may only wind up getting half the story.

My bottom line on this: What happened constituted a complete lack of the imagination and was a gross misuse of power. It deprived not only natives of their dignity, but also non-natives access to information of a quality of life that had existed undisturbed for generations and in some ways superior to others including peace of mind and self-sustenance. Access to health and social care is a right that all Canadians should have; but I often wonder if Aboriginals in tepees and igloos were and are better off than in the artificial environments we shoved upon them. Not that they should not be encouraged to contribute in full to our society; but we're too eager to offer solutions to their social isolation as well as their high rates of crime and substance abuse, rather than offering them the chance to try bottom up solutions.

The healing has to begin somewhere, and I say better late than never -- but again, this apology should have been issued in the 1980s when most of the victims were still alive.

Vote for this post at Progressive Bloggers.

No comments: