The first anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology on behalf of the nation to native people who suffered abuse as children in church-run Indian Residential Schools was marked at events across the country today.
The National Day of Reconciliation was promoted by the Assembly of First Nations and its national chief Phil Fontaine, who said in a statement that the day was to remind the federal government that the “apology calls for the establishment of a new standard of behaviour toward aboriginal people.”
In Ottawa, former residential school students, government officials and representatives from churches that ran the schools gathered on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River for a sunrise ceremony and march to Parliament Hill for a unity rally. Anglican Archbishop Terence Finlay, the primate’s special envoy on residential schools, described the events in Ottawa as “inspirational.” He and Henriette Thompson, director of partnerships at the Anglican Church of Canada, joined Bishop John Chapman of the diocese of Ottawa, along with a number of priests, and diocesan staff, at the 5 a.m. sunrise ceremony.
Later in the morning, members of the First Nations and various groups, including the Anglican diocese of Ottawa, gathered for a march to Parliament Hill for a unity rally. On the Portage Bridge the marchers stopped for a reconciliation handshake and gift exchange between Mr. Fontaine, who retires at the end of July, and church and government representatives. Archbishop Finlay presented him with a chalice on behalf of Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who was travelling and could not attend. Archbishop Finlay said the chalice was a symbol of “hope, new life and grace.” He went on, “We offer this as a sign of our commitment to truth-telling, healing and reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, who suffered the pain and anguish of the residential schools.” Words are significant, he said, but deeds and actions are far more important.
It was obvious from some of the speeches that there is still a great deal of discontent among native people but Ojibwa elder Elmer Courchene said the Creator was asking them to provide love, kindness and compassion, as well as security, happiness and freedom.
Archbishop Hiltz issued a statement on the anniversary noting that “much has happened and much has failed to materialize” in the year since the official government apology. “We are grateful for the Prime Minister’s leadership in establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But we also need to acknowledge that the delay in the commencement of the work of the commission is regrettable and has been harmful to many former residential schools students and to their families and to their communities. Many former residential schools students are growing older and some have died without being heard. Former students have paid a price for the delay in the commencement of the commission’s work.”
The TRC, created to provide former students and their families with a forum to share their experiences, was sidelined since its first chair, Judge Harry LaForme, resigned in October, complaining that the two other commissioners did not accept his authority as chair. Those commissioners, Jane Brewin Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith, resigned in January (effective June 1) to allow the commission to begin with a clean slate.
New commissioners were officially announced by Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Chuck Strahl yesterday. Judge Murray Sinclair, the first native judge on the bench in Manitoba and only the second in Canada, will chair the commission. The two new commissioners are Wilton Littlechild, the Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, and Marie Wilson, a former regional director of CBC North who is married to Stephen Kakfwi, a Dene former premier of the Northwest Territories.
“We rejoice in the naming of the new commissioners and hope that the work of the commission can now resume,” Archbishop Hiltz wrote in his statement. “First Nations, Inuit, Métis people and the churches are eager to move ahead. Though it risks being a painful process for many, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also a hopeful process. We celebrate the courage of all who may become involved in that work. We pray for them, we pray for the commissioners and we pray that all this work may become another stepping stone on the path of reconciliation.”
Archbishop Hiltz added, “As a member church in the Ecumenical Working Group that represents the Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic churches, we welcome the opportunity to join hands in advancing the work of healing and reconciliation, guiding this country of Canada on a new and different path.”