POR: Eduardo del Buey

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A time for reflection and action for Canada

July 1st marked the 154th anniversary of Canada’s founding as a nation. 

It was a bittersweet moment for Canadians, as they were forced to come to terms with a tragic past whose impact continues to affect Canada’s national psyche.

As many of you have learned from media reports, thousands of unidentified bodies have been found buried on properties belonging to Residential Schools – schools that operated across Canada for over 100 years whose objective was to “convert Indigenous youth and to assimilate them into Canadian society” or as some would say, to “take the Indian out of the children”

The result was a rather cruel system whereby indigenous children were removed from their families at a very young age and sent to boarding schools where they were forced to adopt the ways of the white man and even punished for speaking their own language.

This mistreatment resulted in thousands of deaths over the years, and with families being separated and destroyed forever.

Thousands of unidentified bodies have been found buried

The 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Report labelled this “cultural genocide” but it was only when the first bodies were discovered earlier this year that mainstream Canada was forced to confront it history of systemic racism.

While the schools were government sponsored, they were run by religious authorities with 65% of the schools run by the Catholic Church.

By many accounts, many students suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of impatient and dogmatic religious authorities whose cruelty paradoxically had little to do with the teachings of their Lord.

Indeed, these schools were seemingly the opposite of centers of Christian learning.

By many accounts they were hell on earth for those children who passed through their doors and suffered irreparable damage and, in many cases, anonymous death for over a century.

To date, while the Canadian government has apologized for its role in this tragedy, the Catholic Church has not yet done so.

To date, while the Canadian government has apologized for its role in this tragedy, the Catholic Church has not yet done so.

While individual church leaders have expressed their indignation and sadness for this sad situation, the Church as an institution has refused to apologize to indigenous Canadians for its role in this affair. 

Some argue that the Catholic Church refuses to pay and indemnity to the victims and their families as other churches have.

Others claim that the theological basis for the Church’s existence – that it, as an institution is perfect and can do no wrong, but that only individuals can be guilty of wrongdoing – is at the base of this lack of apology.

This may be changing.

In 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to apologize to Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Just this past week, almost 4 years later, I have seen reports that the Pope will receive a group of Canadian indigenous leaders in Rome in December and that a formal apology could be forthcoming after their encounter.

The pressure from Catholic Canadians in particular and Canadians in general has stung the Church.

Many feel that there is no excuse for procrastination on such a sensitive and tragic issue in the XXIst Century.

The Church has so far missed a golden opportunity to engage in community building and live up to its own teachings. 

In Catholic doctrine, repentance is essential for entry into the Kingdom of God.

The Church’s refusal to repent is a negation of this basic doctrine. Many wonder if Canadians can forgive the Church if does not repent and make good on reparations to its victims.

So where do Canadians go from here?

Firstly, Canadians generally acknowledge the systemic racism undertaken in their name by successive governments at all levels.

This gives governments the support necessary to act in order to ensure that a viable infrastructure is created for indigenous communities to provide clean water, health and education services as well support to allow them to nurture their languages and cultures.

Secondly, Canadian educators and broadcasters should consider ways to increase exposure to indigenous history, culture and the realities they face today in order to strengthen understanding and empathy for the “First Canadians”. 

Thirdly, the Pope would be wise to accept the Church’s responsibility in this tragic affair and to visit Canadian indigenous communities as soon as possible.

On a more positive note, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on July 6th that, based on the recommendation of his government, Queen Elizabeth II, who is the Queen of Canada, had appointed Mary Simon as her representative in Canada to act as de facto Head of State.

Governor-General-designate Simon is the first indigenous Governor General of Canada.

She was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec and grew up in a traditional Inuk household.

Simon described her appointment as a “historic and inspirational moment for Canada” and an “important step” towards reconciliation.

 Canada Mary Simon
Mary Simon

In her remarks, Ms. Simon credited her grandmother, Jenny May, and her mother, Nancy May, with instilling in her a “boundless energy for learning, self-improvement and helping my community.”

“They also taught me to always be proud of who I am and to keep my mind open to other points of view,” she said.

According to a Global News report on July 6th, Ms. Simon said she learned “about the South and the non-Native world from a man who had a profound love and respect for the North, its people and its natural beauty” — her father, Bob Mardon May.

“These experiences allowed me to be a bridge between the different lived realities that together make up the tapestry of Canada,” Simon said.

“I can relate to all people, no matter where they live, what they hope for or what they need to overcome.”

She has been an indigenous leader, journalist, senior public and private sector executive and diplomat throughout her career.

She served as Canada’s first Inuk ambassador and filed her diplomatic chops as Canada’s Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and Ambassador to Denmark.

In her role as Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs she was a key player in international efforts to negotiate agreements with respect to managing the Arctic region involving a good number of countries.

Her appointment as Governor General follows two major developments this year.

Her predecessor, former Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, had to resign in January as a result of accusations by members of her staff of fostering a toxic environment in the office of the Governor General.

Julie Payette

This led to a search for a candidate who could bring people together in a positive business environment and return a level of civility to Canada’s highest office.

The second major development was the unearthing of thousands of bodies at former Residential Schools discussed above. These schools, founded in the 19th century, removed indigenous children from their families and communities and deprived them of their culture, heritage, and language. Thousands of children died during this period that lasted over a century and has resulted in a national trauma. 

Mary Simon appears to be a leader whose time has come. 

Canada needs reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens.

This will be a major challenge for her since she is both an indigenous person as well as the representative of the Crown with whom indigenous people have traditionally negotiated their treaty rights.

She will have to walk a fine line between advocacy and neutrality since hers is a mostly ceremonial and apolitical role.

Her appointment has been well received by both indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. 

Canadian Indigenous

She also faces another challenge, however. Although she was born in Quebec, she speaks no French.

She has committed to learning Canada’s other official language as soon as possible so that all Canadians can feel represented by her in this highest of offices.

As a Canadian, I am pleased with this appointment. 

I believe that she can make a difference and help Canadians transcend what have been a few traumatic months given recent developments as well as over a century of difficult relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. 

As she travels across Canada and around the world, she will be able to address human rights issues as one who has suffered from systemic racism as well as someone who has not only fought it all of her life but now embodies the will of all Canadians to address and overcome this dark chapter of Canadian history.

So, perhaps by next Canada Day, Canada’s citizens can begin to replace pain, sadness and reflection with progress towards a better future for all.


Eduardo del Buey

Eduardo is a former deputy spokesperson for Ban Ki-Moon.

He is an expert in public diplomacy.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CEIM. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion. The content on this site does not constitute endorsement of any political affiliation and does not reflect opinions from members of the staff and board.

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julio 20, 2021

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