Dear Prime Minister:
When I heard your words in the House of Commons that were deemed an apology for the debacle of Canada’s residential school system, I was heartened. At that time, it was nothing short of amazing to hear a prime minister use the word “wrong” in reference to Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people. Now, nearly four years later, I look at the astoundingly hurtful cuts to organizations whose sole purposes are the re-empowerment and well-being of aboriginal people, and I am disheartened. Hell, Mr. Harper, I am downright angry.
You said “sorry” and you were not. In aboriginal context, an apology means that you recognize the flaw within yourself that made the offence possible and you offer reconciliation based on understanding the nature of that flaw. That reconciliation takes the form of living and behaving in the opposite manner. You have not done this. In fact, you have continued in the same vein that made the original apology necessary.
Residential schools effectively separated aboriginal children from the influence of everything that could sustain, perpetuate and define them. When you cut funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization and the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s health program and ended the mandate of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, you did the same thing.
Your apology and any actions you have undertaken since have only been the expedient motions demanded by tragedy, catastrophe or the public outing of your government’s callous indifference to the needs of Canada and her people.
Because it’s not just aboriginal people you harm when you deign to disengage us from vehicles of healing. You harm Canada. You make the entire country less.
As someone graced with a chief’s headdress and a native name, as you were by the Blood people, it is incumbent on you to learn the teachings those honours arise from. One of them is that the honour of one thing is the honour of all. Similarly, the dishonour of one is the dishonour of all. So when you dishonour us, you dishonour the country. You dishonour that headdress and the ceremony attached to it. You dishonour protocol, tradition, spirituality and the foundational principle of both the headdress and Canada – equality.
Residential schools left deep and grievous wounds on our national consciousness. Your actions only continue that legacy.
As individuals, we seek to heal through a process of learning to embrace our hurts, to hold them, so we can learn to let them go with grace. We learn to embrace our hurts by coming to understand and accept our whole story, our whole history. We leave out nothing. Only when we can accept our whole story can we move on as enlightened, empowered and whole people.
It’s the same for a community, a municipality, a province, a society and a nation. Aboriginal people understand this, and our health and healing organizations are geared toward the perpetuation of that process. We seek to build strong people within the context of Canada, to integrate whole people into the flux and flow of our homeland. But you choose to disallow us that and we can only feel the hurt of yet another wound and ask why.
I, for one, believe in the idea of Canada. I believe in the incredible potential for social greatness that resides here. I believe there is nothing we can’t accomplish as a country if we all work together to make it happen. For the most part, aboriginal people believe that, too. Every political motion we undertake is a step toward the vision of Canada we carry – of a homeland built on equality, harmony and unity.
But those things cannot occur when exclusion is allowed to happen. This is what we know. We seek to be a fully functioning part of this nation’s march toward a shining common future. We strive to be whole and well. We seek personal, community, tribal and collective fulfilment. We seek to be good citizens. In this, we are no different from our non-native neighbours.
I hope you have it in you to hear this. I hope you know that, of the one million aboriginal people in Canada, a significant number of us are potential voters and that our numbers can influence hundreds of ridings. I hope you know that three years is not a long time and that, if your hope is that Canada forgets your missteps before then, we as aboriginal people will not come election time.
Richard Wagamese, a B.C.-based columnist and author, is the recipient of the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications. His latest novel is Indian Horse .