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photo supplied by DIAND
But the moment of highest drama came with the apology for government participation in the residential-school scheme, which separated generations of Aboriginal children from their families in a misguided attempt to assimilate the culture and traditions of the First Nations. An estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children were forced into the schools, where some were routinely beaten with whips, chained and shackled to beds or locked for days in closets.
As National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, I was honoured to symbolically accept the government's apology as an essential first step in a changed relationship that promises to respect our differences and our culture as well as recognize our inherent right to self-government.As Fred Kelly, an elder from Manitoba and a residential school survivor, rightly commented at [the] ceremony, it is not within the powers of one person to forgive the transgressions of another; only the Creator can do that. Nonetheless, as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, I was honoured to symbolically accept the government's apology as an essential first step in a changed relationship that promises to respect our differences and our culture as well as recognize our inherent right to self-government.
Part of the package presented by Minister Stewart includes a [$350] million fund to assist First Nations to recover from the legacy of intergenerational abuse and alienation spawned by the residential schools. While it is impossible to put a price tag on the suffering experienced by thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal children, their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, the fund will go some distance toward starting the healing process. As someone who personally experienced the pain of the residential schools, I see this step as important for the long-term progress of Aboriginal communities.
Since my election as National Chief [in August 1997], I have been encouraged by what appears to be a paradigm shift in attitude by the federal government. The acknowledgement that we have a
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nation-to-nation relationship, the establishment of an independent land claims tribunal, increased investment in First Nations' health and education, and the development of strategies to enhance First Nations' economic development indicates a real commitment that goes far beyond the rhetoric and empty promises of the past.
Starting a new relationship with Canada means, among other things, working with the government to close the seven-year life expectancy gap between First Nations members and other Canadians; ending the disproportionate Indian incarceration rate, six times as high as the national average; and addressing as an urgent matter the Aboriginal school dropout rate, 50% higher than that of other students.
Minister Stewart said we cannot rewrite history, but we must deal with past mistakes if the First Nations and other Canadians hope to establish the trust and respect required to move into the next millennium. On behalf of the First Nations, I applaud the step she took [in January] and commit myself to work with her to develop a shared vision for the future. Cooperation, not confrontation, will make this a better country for us all, the place the Creator intended it to be.
This article was reprinted with permission from the January 19, 1998 issue of TIME Canada.