He’s sorrowful…but not sorry

by Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

My inbox was abuzz yesterday with news of the Pope’s admission that he was “sorrowful” for what happened to residential school survivors; which came as a result of the much anticipated visit to the Vatican by a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations here in Canada.

Sorrowful. But not sorry. Is that an important distinction?

Chief Phil Fontaine says “it’s a very significant statement” and that we shouldn’t be distracted by the fact that it’s not an apology. I already know that Phil doesn’t speak for me; we kind of parted ways with the whole AFN endorsing of the Olympics in Vancouver 2010 issue, but to me it is an important distinction that the Pope did not actually say he’s sorry.

In fact I’m not a huge fan of government apologies at all – but I do understand what it means to so many of our people. Last June, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the historic residential school apology I wrote about it and felt angry – angry that he can make an apology and basically wipe his hands clean of it – which is what the Residential School Payment Settlement represents to me. Yet for so many of the survivors it represented a start to the path of healing, something they had been waiting to happen for so long, and gave them peace of mind that the government appeared to take accountability for its horrendous actions. Particularly when a number of our communities are still actively practicing Christians.

I think this is in part a generational difference. Since the apology in Canada has happened I have spoken to many people, young and old, across these borders and like talking about residential schools itself; talking about the apology was not that much easier. I wasn’t alone in my anger and frustration, plenty of descendants of survivors were pissed off and felt like Harper was getting credit for something that wasn’t even his idea; not to mention the raw end of the deal we all get for being descendants and the intergenerational trauma we are suffering through that isn’t really being acknowledged on any level. For other non-Native people it was the first time they had even heard about residential schools; and yes our “Canadian” and “American” history courses are that shitty.

Boarding schools are still operational on a few Native American reservations, although they are now tribally owned and serve a purpose to house students who may be living in farther away remote communities to be able to go to school. But do students get to learn the past about them? I think we teach as we go along, and when we can. A few weeks ago in Duncan, British Columbia where I was presenting a film for the Cowichan Aboriginal Film Festival, we got to witness the unveiling of the box that had been created for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was accompanied by a long and powerful ceremony. I heard a few whisperings around me like “what does this have to do with the film festival?” but in my heart I knew, that when we gather, it’s an opportunity to teach our own people what so many don’t want us to know about. It has something to do with all of us.

It’s important to recognize the burden we all bear to make sure this part of the colonizers history gets told – truthfully.  While countless survivors still carry so much pain that they can’t even tell their families, children, and grandchildren what happened to them, the thousands of our people who are homeless or self-medicating through whatever means to make it through each day, may not ever find out they are eligible for a settlement payment, never mind that the government made an apology, or that the Pope finally said something. Who is going to tell them? Exploiting people’s pain is only too easy, and this cause has already been taken up by non-Native people who are so self-righteous in their claims for “justice”, while every now and then giving the floor to the actual survivors – who deserve to be leading this movement themselves.

Two years ago I was in Kamloops and decided to visit the reserve where the band had taken back the residential school and turned it into a museum. I didn’t even know that this was the case until I got there (they advertise it as a Native-run cultural museum which was what piqued my interest). I was walking through the various rooms with the Director, commenting on how much the museum had preserved from the residential school days; the uniforms, the trophies, journals, etc to which he replied “This was the actual residential school – and I used to go here”. My mouth dropped, I felt so ignorant, and didn’t know what to say, until all I could think of was “How are you doing this?” He told me that when he left residential school, he ran away from his community for a number of years, in search of something to fill a whole that had been created inside him, but could never find it. “This is my home.” he told me. “I have to deal with that so I could come back. People need to know what happened. And the only way we’re going to get anywhere is if we actually admit what happened.”

(Photo credit: CBC News)