In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Apology to the Aboriginal People

Posted 6/17/2008 by Grant Mitchell

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I appreciate every day I am in the Senate what a tremendous and humbling privilege it is to be a Senator, to be able to serve Canada and Alberta, to be part of an institution of historic importance to us all. I have had a number of life’s experiences in that building. One was the ceremony inaugurating Governor General Jean. It was a moving and powerful moment to see a woman who is an immigrant, of a visible minority, immensely intelligent and with compelling eloquence speak to the country from her heart about a range of ideas and feelings that were quintessentially Canadian. I will never forget her at that moment.

Equally powerful was the apology this week to Canada’s aboriginal peoples. I was able to sit in the gallery in the House of Commons and witness the proceedings. What I will always remember was the dignity and grace of each of the aboriginal leaders who spoke and the profound generosity of spirit that they exhibited in extending their forgiveness to Canada and Canadians. Someone said that only in Canada could this happen and it was a moment that will forever seem profoundly Canadian to me.

The five aboriginal leaders spoke of the harsh realities of their experiences and the experience of their people. Phil Fontaine, the National Chief, two women leaders, a leader of aboriginal youth and the leader of the Métis nation each represented their people beautifully. Aboriginals are very fortunate to have leaders of that quality and so are all Canadians.

I was struck by the impact of the residential schools on the lives of so many aboriginal people and on their children in turn. Skeptics wonder at why this experience would be so destructive and would be passed from generation to generation. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a young child sent away to a residential school for 10 months at a time, without seeing your parents, being beaten for speaking your own language.

Many were physically, sexually and psychologically abused. Imagine your children being told over and over again that their culture, that is the very essence of whom and what they are, is inferior, so inferior that they were punished for speaking their language. Wonder how it would ever be possible for them to pass along to their children any confidence about themselves and about their place in the world. Imagine the guilt parents felt because they did not (even though they were powerless to do so) stop this. They were so often forced to let their children go.

I remember a story told by one survivor of how he was never held by loving parents because he was taken away from them and so he had no idea how to hold and express his love for his own children. And because his parents felt that they had “allowed” this to happen, they lived with a suffocating guilt.

It is so easy for so many of us to take our up bringing for granted: 18 or more years in a loving home, supported and encouraged by parents and extended families, safe and trusting environments.

Now the real work begins to ensure that this does not result in further betrayal. This government has cancelled the Kelowna accord. This accord was remarkable because for the first time it brought provincial government commitment to provide those services, like education, which they have expertise, experience and infrastructure to aboriginal people. Why has Harper not signed the UN accord on the rights of aboriginal peoples? Why has he cancelled the $163,000,000 the Liberals committed to preserving aboriginal languages? There are 52 and only 3 are not in jeopardy of being lost. Harper can do better and he needs to. Words bereft of action ring very hollow.

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