The statement of reconciliation: thoughts and impressions
One feature of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that impressed a young Eskimo boy in school amongst Qallunaat children in the 1960’s in “White Man’s Land” suburbia was the large signature at the bottom signed George R.
He must have written the document himself; he must have been a kind man, a good king, were the prevailing thoughts then. Ordering his subjects in British North America not to “molest Indians in their Lands”. Being a king, he must have been obeyed by those he ruled.
Innocence, until it is lost, is precious and mystifying.
Fast forward to January 7, 1998, first day of the Great Ice Storm. The Eskimo boy is now a middle-aged Inuit leader, observing ceremonies in the government of Canada’s statement of reconciliation to aboriginal people. This in Ottawa, the place of his first discovery of that Proclamation by King George.
Impressions flood into the mind. The document is displayed on an easel. The urge is to take a look to see if the signature on the bottom is Elizabeth R. Or next best, the Governor-General. Or next best, the Prime Minister. Slight disappointment to see that it is two Ministers of the Crown who signed.
Prevailing thoughts: Must be truer if signed by two federal Ministers instead of a single Elizabeth R. Must be a first marker on the road, a statement of good intentions on shuffling motions in the right direction.
The minister makes specific reference to a string of wrongs committed by the country’s governing authorities toward Canada’s original inhabitants. It turns out George R’s subjects and their descendants had disobeyed most of the instruction issued by him in 1763.
Indians and others were molested in more ways than one. A question pops in out of the solemn air: Did these “civilized” people not possess a sense of right and wrong, or did guilt overcome them 235 years late?
To hear the words “we are deeply sorry” from the mouth of a federal Minister was at once soothing, jarring, gratifying, slightly surreal and somewhat disorienting. Mystically weird stuff. If the statement were a pudding, it would be simultaneously bitter and sweet. The cherry on top would be the thought, “Do they really mean this?” Right beside this would be a pickled olive, “Believe it when you see it!”
In Inuit food terms, it is a mixture of igunaq (aged, fermented) and nutaaviniq, tuqutaurataaq (new, freshly killed).
Working on the issue for over a decade, we never succeeded in getting similar words uttered toward our people relocated to the High Arctic in the 1950’s. We were fought tooth and nail every step of the way by former officials of the government and the RCMP who were at the height of their careers during this ill-conceived and ineptly carried out experiment.
More than money or any material thing, the elders of this group dearly wanted to hear a Prime Minister sincerely say to them, “I am sorry.”
Most of these elders are no longer with us, but their children and grandchildren are as determined as ever to have these words of balm for the heart and soul fall upon their ears.
One would hope such a thing would not take 113 years, as in the case of the resurrection of the reputation of Louis Riel. This is part of the contradictory emotions ceremony. A man hung as a traitor renovated as a Father of Confederation! What sense of right and wrong! Or is it belated guilt?
Key buzz-words keep plunging out of the swirl. “New partnership.” “New beginning.” “A fresh start.” “A new relationship.” It’s good stuff, gushed out in a positive hopefulness never before circulated on so great a scale by such people.
As a representative of Nunavik – underdeveloped and non represented in the corridors of power anywhere – I take a step-and-a-half back. Issues closer to home jump out at me. Items I would dearly love to have resolved before we take part in hitting stride toward this brave new world. Stuff that stems from government commitments which to us were written in black and white, and yet unfulfilled. Important matters which we find very difficult to keep the government’s attention span upon in their shuffling and muffling.
I try to reassure myself, with difficulty, that this will change. Government will be more forthcoming, more forthright. I pledge in my own small way to be less automatic in my skepticism. Vivid tracks, though, take time to fade.
The event acutely sharpens awareness of certain things. One is that the government has a great challenge ahead to force the attitude change initiated by this milestone to become genuine and irreversible.
Only by demonstrating this tangibly will it earn the trust of Inuit to be serious partners in the enterprise of a new era. Its Indian Affairs Department (note the name here!) also has a major structural adaptation job to do on itself to make us Inuit a lot more comfortable by seeing a truer reflection of ourselves in its make-up.
One of our own buzz-words is “Inuit-specific.” Our own uniqueness as a distinct collective, occupying a homeland encompassing the top third of the land mass of Canada, has to be acknowledged, appreciated, and accommodated. Genuinely, not superficially.
Those of us Inuit who have the misfortune to be trapped in provinces will also have to be reassured that we will no longer always get the shortest end of the stick, or no stick at all.
Do we have high expectations? You bet your sweet bippy! Can these be satisfied? They had darn well eventually better be! The thaw following the Great Ice Storm is an opportunity to stride forth in a new political climate between government and Inuit.