Aware of the “dark, black cloud” that hung over Native communities in Canada, Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, came forward at an AFN gathering in the Yukon in 1992 (at which time he was Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and spoke about the physical and sexual abuse that many had suffered, himself included. “I was criticized by some at the meeting who thought there were other, more pressing issues,” recalls Fontaine, who was sexually assaulted as a child at the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Residential School in Sagkeeng, Man. Undaunted by this initial rejection, Fontaine took his message to a gathering of about 200 journalists in Toronto a few weeks later. The news hit the media like a hammer on a drum, and his message resonated almost immediately with people throughout Native communities who were deeply moved, to the point of activism. All of a sudden, people who had hidden the abuse in their pasts from friends and family, started coming forward, talking about their pain, searching for healing and demanding justice.
For his part, Fontaine says, “I never appreciated the impact this disclosure would have on me personally.” Seated in an Ottawa restaurant, surrounded by his small but ever-present retinue, he will not discuss the details of his residential-school experience. “Not names. Not intimate details.” He has never pursued legal action (his abuser is deceased). When asked how he got through the early days after his disclosure, Fontaine simply says, “I was very busy then.” At this point, there is a pause in the conversation as the Grand Chief gathers his thoughts and emotions before breaking the silence: “Since I first spoke up, I’ve been in counselling. The motivation, the reasons behind it all … I haven’t dealt with all the issues. I still have a hell of a lot of work to do.” Arguably, his best work was helping to heave open the floodgates of secrecy that would allow hundreds of people to surge forward with stories of abuse – stories that would eventually cause the federal government and the four churches involved to issue public apologies for their roles in the abuse of their young Native charges.
In the case of the Anglican Church of Canada, Primate Michael Peers took the microphone at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ont., in August of 1993 and said: “I accept and confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools … I am sorry more than I can say … that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family … tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity … that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology ….” This apology was accepted graciously by many Aboriginal Anglicans. Others have left the church in anger. As for many of those who were wronged in the worst way while young and vulnerable, a generalized “sorry” is not enough. Some want the chance to face the individuals who abused them and hear them say they are sorry and ask forgiveness. Others want to watch as the government and churches take their legal and financial lumps. And all Natives seem to want Canadians to recognize the prejudicial treatment and malfeasance to which so many of their people were subjected at residential schools, and to acknowledge the lingering effects.
But there are people who defend the political principle of residential schooling. “Civilization was the avowed policy of residential schooling, and it worked,” says Tom Flanagan, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “What were we going to do, leave Indians uncivilized in a civilized society?”
As for court battles and claims of abuse, Flanagan told Western Report magazine that residential schools have been stigmatized by native-rights advocates who ransacked the historical record for horror stories that exaggerated the negative and ignored the successes. “The aboriginal movement depends on the cultivation of grievances,” he said, referring to recent legal decisions as “an expensive and mistaken orgy of guilt” on the part of non-Natives.