Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Apologies pretty much worthless

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The University of Manitoba has touched off a controversy by offering an apology to First Nations people for the role it played in the mistreatment of aboriginal children in Indian residential schools.

Some people are wondering what the university is apologizing for. Others are asking if this whole apology business has gone too far.

The logic behind the university's decision is that the institution played a significant role in whatever went on at the residential schools by providing education and training to the people who were most responsible for operating and managing the schools (the principals and teachers).

It's a bit of a stretch because most of the schools were run by churches, which educate their own through parochial rather than state-run schools. But we can recognize that more than a few teachers who taught or abused at the residential schools got their degrees through the U of M.

But so did business students who went on to use their knowledge to set up credit card scams. And what about the lawyer who got a rapist off the hook so he could do his dastardly deeds again. Many of our politicians must be graduates.

Does the University of Manitoba have to apologize for them?

There are many people who believe the university's apology borders on being oversensitive or even neurotic.

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that all Canadians should apologize for the actions of our forebears because our government supported the schools with Canadian tax dollars. We are all, therefore, responsible for what our country did in the past.

Frankly, I am starting to wonder if there is any use making any apologies at all. For an apology to be sincere, it must be backed up by deeds that redress whatever we did that we claim to be sorry for. When we look at the big picture of First Nations in Canada, this simply isn't happening.

Recently, the Winnipeg Free Press featured exposes of the lack of running water and the deplorable housing conditions in First Nations, such as those in the Island Lake area. The Free Press ran pretty much the same article about Pukatawagan five years ago. Detailed descriptions of up to 25 people living in one house, showering in shifts and using slop pails for toilets is all you need to know of the Third World conditions suffered by First Nations in one of the richest countries in the world.

Arguing about whose fault that is always places some blame with all of us. And there is no doubt it will take trillions of dollars to bring the standard of living of First Nations equal to mainstream Canada.

The situation can certainly be eased if we listen to those people who are "occupying" places right now. Like, why should a stock broker (or newbie Internet billionaire) own a house with 20 bathrooms? We should have a more equitable distribution of the wealth in this land.

But that's not what we're arguing here.

How can we continue to make such a big deal about apologizing for one aspect of our shared history when there are a litany of injustices that manifest themselves in today? How sincere is any apology when conditions continue to get worse instead of better for First Nations?

We read that Parliament is going to install stained glass windows to create a "legacy" about the residential school experience. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will spend $60 million creating other legacies (expect a lot of sculptors to be very busy making statues over the next decade) while gathering stories from survivors.

I do not mean to belittle the efforts of the commission or Canadian taxpayers who are paying out millions of dollars in compensation for the physical and sexual abuse that was part of this cultural genocide. But when we see the multi-generational impact of the school experience (Indian school children who were abused developed social and economic problems which were passed on to their children and exacerbated through neglect until they became the huge concern in our streets and neighbourhoods we are just beginning to address now), the deeds required to back up the apologies are going to cost a helluva lot more than what we are putting out now.

Perhaps the biggest irony (injustice) is the realization that while we scramble to apologize for the treatment Indian children received in residential schools, funding for the education of First Nations children today is half of what we spend on all other children in Canada.

Meanwhile, those deplorable conditions that exist in many First Nations are real enough to gather the official attention of the United Nations. Telling the world you apologized for part of it just isn't going to cut it.

Don Marks received a bachelor of science from the University of Manitoba but his dreams of becoming a veterinarian were doomed by fumble fingers. Anybody who wants an apology for what Don writes will have to ask his high school English teachers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 A19

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