In many respects, my friend and colleague Garnet Angeconeb is representative of the countless Aboriginal children beaten and raped in Canada's Indian residential schools. For years he told no one, including his wife. Angry, pain-filled and confused, he drank heavily to dull his feelings. The turning-point in his life arrived during a business trip to Ottawa, on October 31, 1990:
That morning, I got up, showered, dressed, and headed downstairs to meet a colleague for breakfast. "Hey, look at this front-page article on the residential school issue," he said as he sipped his coffee. I had my own copy of the Globe and Mail tucked under my arm. There, on the front page, was an article about how the then-Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Phil Fontaine, had publicly disclosed that he had been physically and sexually abused while attending an Indian Lake residential school. As I read the article, I began to feel an indescribable pain crawling all over my body. Through this haze of pain, I struggled to admit to my colleague that I, too, like many former students, had experienced sexual and physical abuse while at residential school. I was also enraged by the psychological and spiritual scars inflicted on me and the other students. My colleague and I grew almost completely silent. The silence continued as we ate our breakfast. After a while, my colleague quietly asked, "So you were abused in residential school?" Not knowing what exactly to say, I responded, "Yes, I was abused -- sexually." I told him that a man at the school named Hands, who eventually became an Anglican priest, had abused me and many others at Pelican during the 1960s. I felt a wave of rage overtake me. I had a huge lump in my throat as I struggled to hold back the pain I had buried for so many years. Then, as if a floodgate had been thrown open, I cried uncontrollably. It was the first time I had ever told anyone that as a little boy I had been sexually abused at residential school. For the next year I tried to figure out how to deal with that admission. I had to tell my family (I have been married since 1978 and had never spoken of the abuse to my wife). It took a lot of soul-searching -- I had so many doubts.
As Angeconeb recalls years later, Leonard Hands made a deliberate point of refusing to apologize to him either during the January 5, 1996 Kenora District Court sentencing or in the years leading up to his death in 2000: "he specifically stated he was not apologizing to me. He wasn't allowed to use my name but said he was specifically excluding "G.A." from his apology. He claimed he had already done so during our meeting in 1992, and that I had refused his apology. It angered me but I realized he was a man going down and that it was his only way of lashing out and trying to regain some control." No longer among the living, Hands would be the object of posthumous forgiveness. In this way, Angeconeb would begin to let go of the rage and confusion, taking a huge step forward in his personal healing and spiritual growth.
To some, the insistence on forgiving an unrepentant man like Hands might appear strange. One could argue he did not deserve such a gesture. This however misses the point. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, survivors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuses in the Indian residential schools have wanted the same thing Garnet Angeconeb did: they wanted the silence and secrecy to end, and with them the pain, shame, and collective denial.
Survivors still want these things. If the courts can not deliver -- and usually they can't -- then something else must. What too many Canadians fail to grasp is that forgiveness is, and should be, above all else for the survivors. By forgiving, they take a similar leap forward. That is why the question of an apology from the Prime Minister of Canada, delivered on the floor of the House of Commons, mattered so much. It could provide the occasion for many individual turning points and leaps forward. But the asking for and giving of forgiveness is also about the work of restoring relationships, by putting them on an honest, respectful and just foundation -- relationships not only between the Canadian government and residential school survivors, but throughout the many communities affected by this long-lived policy of institutionalization.
No one understands better than Garnet Angeconeb the importance of this healing journey. For years now he has been pursuing a vision of the better world that he wants for his grandchildren, and for future generations. Whether speaking about his residential school experience, or combatting racism through his work with the Sioux Lookout Anti-Racism Committee, or promoting healing and reconciliation, he is an inspiring advocate of dignity and hope. Yes, Garnet once told me, we were wounded. Yes, we have suffered. But I have a feeling that through the work of many people, we are coming back.
On November 8, 2012, Garnet Angeconeb officially launches his personal website Garnet's Journey.
HARPER: Noted aboriginal participation. "We have the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, this year, in which aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples joined under the Crown. Ultimately laying the basis for a distinct country in the northern half of this continent," he said. ATLEO: Said British North America would not have won the war against the United States without the participation of First Nations. "It is no exaggeration to say that without the courage and military skills of First Nation leaders and warriors in the War of 1812 that followed, Canada might be a very different place today. Our ancestors were central to every campaign and to the ultimate victory," he said. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
HARPER: Suggested that First Nations people work with the oil sands industry to achieve a quick path to prosperity. "With inspired leadership, energy and enterprise, some bands have already shown that First Nations people are as quick to prosper, as capable of excellence and as able to enjoy all that Canada's vibrant economy has to offer them. I think of B.C.'s Haisla First Nation, partners in the massive Kitimat LNG project that will deliver training, employment and rich economic and social benefits to the community for decades to come. Or the Alberta First Nations, whose band-owned companies, do hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business with oil sands producers, employing thousands of aboriginal people in skilled, high-paying jobs." ATLEO: Suggested First Nations invest in greener energy. "Many of our communities are already moving forward, taking economic matters into their own hands, in sectors like clean energy and technology." (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
HARPER: Said it was most of his most rewarding days in office to fix a wrong. "That is why one of my most rewarding days in office was when I rose in the House to deliver an apology to those students. We acknowledged that sad chapter in our history. We repudiated the thinking that lay behind it. And, we went beyond symbolism," he said. ATLEO: Said Harper's apology had set the stage for Tuesday's meeting. "The historic Apology, made possible by the leadership of Prime Minister Harper set the course for reconciliation - a journey together that helped enable today's gathering," he said. (Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images)
HARPER: Said he would not get rid of the Act but would bring in incremental changes. "Our Government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act. After 136 years, that tree has deep roots blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole. However, there are ways creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our Government, the provinces, and First Nations leadership and communities, ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change. That will be our approach. " ATLEO: Said the Act was a painful obstacle to building any new relationship. "Built on the disgraceful premise of our inferiority, aimed at assimilation and the destruction of our cultures - it was a complete abrogation of the partnership between respectful nations. Largely unchanged, it remains a painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful partnership. It is well past time that we began to undo the damage that Act has inflicted on our peoples, and to our partnership. For, from it grew the reserve system, the tragedy of residential schools and offensive prohibitions on our cultural and spiritual practices, a breach of faith that has devastated families and communities ever since,"ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
HARPER: Noted the meeting was taking place on traditional Algonquin territory, but spent more time talking about the building, 111 Sussex Drive, which his government had renamed after former Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker. "A building whose name honours the memory of a prime minister who cared deeply about the things we are gathered here to talk about: respect, rights and opportunity for First Nations Canadians," Harper said. ATLEO: Made no mention of the building but acknowledged the Algonquin territory and the leaders of the Algonquin nation. "It was the Algonquins who greeted newcomers to their lands on the shores of the Ottawa River in front of us here," he said. (Flickr: mrpolyonymous' photostream)
HARPER: Stressed the need get marketable labour skills. "Such will be the demand for labour in our future economy that we are positioned today to unlock the enormous economic potential of First Nations people and to do so in a way that meets our mutual goals. Canada's growing and vibrant economy will require a skilled and growing labour force in every region: urban, rural and remote.Aboriginal peoples are Canada's youngest population. It is therefore in all of our interests to see aboriginal people educated, skilled and employed," he said. ATLEO: Also stressed education but said that started with funding adequate schools. "Collectively, First Nations leaders made education our top priority. Our kids, just like every Canadian family's children, deserve good schools. That's basic, that's proof of respectful partnership...Our people can make an enormous contribution to Canada if we tackle these obstacles. Our people are the youngest, fastest growing community in a Canadian labour force that is rapidly aging. Closing the education and employment gaps for our people would contribute 400 billion dollars to the national economy and save 115 billion in expenditures," he said. (ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)
HARPER: Said he wanted to make First Nations more transparent. "We have tabled bills to strengthen First Nations governance, with 21st century rules on elections and transparency... Our goal is to promote improved governance." ATLEO: Said First Nations were being unnecessarily burdened with paperwork. "We are committed to financial accountability yet this must be mutual accountability from the Government as well. Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser undertook 32 audits related to First Nations. She concluded that the quality of life conditions had actually gotten worse after her decade of study... We struggle under layer upon layer of wasteful bureaucratic interference, useless and expensive controls are piled upon our people - squandering tax dollars and frustrating change. Now, we must turn this around - increase the rate and pace of change so that all First Nations children can achieve success.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
HARPER: Said he wants to create self-sufficient citizens, self-governing communities and full participants in Canadian society. "Our goal is much increased aboriginal participation in the economy and in the country's prosperity... In terms of participation, standard of living and quality of life the time has come for First Nations to fully share with other Canadians from all walks of life in an equal opportunity to find the dignity of gainful employment and more than that, the ability to raise a family in the security that comes with it." Harper said the way forward was Joint Action Plan and new commitments on change the rules in education, accountability, economic development and treaty relationships. ATLEO: Said a complete overhaul of the system was needed to ensure services get to those who need them and said decision making should be made by First Nations themselves. "Next must come new fiscal relationships that guarantee and deliver sustainable, equitable services based on mutually agreed standards and shared responsibility. We need to build new structures and processes that affirm our relationship and uphold our responsibilities to one another. Structures that guarantee our ability to make the decisions that affect our lives and our lands - agreements that allow us, and the Government of Canada to assume their responsibilities...Today our young entrepreneurs - together with partners, can generate the economic levers that re- build our economies. At the same time, we must not forget the basic needs that touch families most closely. As neighbours, we must all find a sense of community and extend a helping hand," he said. (CP)
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