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Does a Silent Apology Really Say ‘We’re Sorry’?

A column by Lise Balk King about the difference between the apologies by the U.S. and Canadian governments to American Indians.

On Wednesday June 11, 2008, all of Canada was asked to take pause to participate in an unprecedented national event. Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked his 30 million Canadian citizens to tune in to Parliament for a live, nationally broadcast Apology to their country's First Nations, their indigenous peoples. The task was specific and long overdue: “The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry,” said Harper. He specifically addressed the government’s role in assimilating Native children through church-run residential (boarding) schools, and sought a turning point in the troubled history between Native peoples and the Canadian state. The Apology amounted to nothing less than a shared mea culpa for Canadians and a sense of acknowledgment and relief for Native peoples. Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations and a victim of abuse at residential school, was in attendance that day. "We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history…Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," said Mr. Fontaine. In direct contrast to Canada's shared national moment of state and communal responsibility, it might surprise you to learn that the United States has also offered an official Apology to Native people. On Saturday, December 19, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution into law. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), sponsor of the bill, had it successfully added to the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, H.R. 3326, after five years of effort. The final document “apologized on behalf of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect of Native Peoples by citizens of the United States” and “urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land.” Public apologies have long been instrumental in healing some of the most egregious transgressions against humanity, including apartheid in South Africa and the inter-tribal massacres of Rwanda. In fact, public admissions of responsibility by state actors are considered to be part of the international human rights framework for conflict resolution and reconciliation. But the operative word here is "public." The moment of the signing of the US Apology by Obama in December of 2009 was closed to the press. A public reading of the Apology wasn't held until May 20, 2010, when Sen. Brownback read the resolution during an event at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. There were five tribal leaders present, representing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Pawnee nations. The other marked difference between the Canadian and the US apologies is in the details of the admission. Canada's work in repair and reconciliation has been specific and actionable. It refers to the harm done by assimilation practices of the government, and in particular the abuses of the residential school system. The US apology, as un-public as the delivery has been thus far, also misses the opportunity to list the transgressions. Brownback did propose a Preamble to the Apology Resolution that provided historical context to the measure, citing "the assistance provided to settlers by Native Americans, the killing of Indian women and children, the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee, the theft of tribal lands and resources, the breaking of treaties, and the removal of Indian children to boarding schools." It did not make it into the final draft of the measure. Armand MacKenzie is the former Senior Advisor on International & Human Rights Affairs at the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (of Canada) and current CEO at Innu Council of Nitassinan. He emphasizes, "It was really something great to see the Apology done in public…The injustices were a result of state policies and practices. They need to be accountable, otherwise government would do what they want without consequence." In Canada, not everyone agrees with the consequences and responsibilities of the Apology, but there has been a national admission of the scope of damage done to native peoples and their life ways. It is no longer an item to be minimized or explained away as "You were conquered, get over it," as I overheard in a conversation in Rapid City, South Dakota a few years back. Obama's Apology to Native Americans is important, and could provide a much-needed shift in public attitudes toward tribes in the country, as well as attitudes of Native people toward the federal government. But only if he goes to the next logical and morally correct step, and makes the Native American Apology Resolution part of the national discourse. Otherwise, a big and historic tree fell in the forest and truly didn't make a sound. Lise Balk King is a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was previously co-Publisher and Executive Editor of The Native Voice newspaper.

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