The Comeback

An excerpt

Book jacket courtesy of Penguin Canada Books

Allow me to tell you a short story about a long saga, both of which illustrate what the government has been doing and what the indigenous peoples have been dealing with over approximately a century and a half.

St. Anne’s in Fort Albany on James Bay was opened in 1902 as a Roman Catholic mission. In 1904 it became a residential school. In 1970 the federal government took it over, closing it in 1976.

In the early 1990s, after widespread complaints of sexual and physical abuse against the children, Ontario Provincial Police detectives were assigned to investigate what had happened at the school. The result was several convictions. These came out of the massive investigations lasting five years and involving hundreds of survivors. Seven thousand pages of testimony and corroborated information were assembled. For example, there was an electric chair. Edmund Metatawabin, chief of the Fort Albany First Nation in the 1990s: “Small boys used to have their legs flying in front of them…the sight of a child being electrocuted and their legs flying out in front was a funny sight for the missionaries and they’d all be laughing…the cranking of the machine would be longer and harder. Now you’re inflicted with real pain. Some of them passed out.”

In 2003 the federal government asked for and received copies of these seven thousand pages.

Meanwhile the country was slowly developing a method aimed at reconciliation. It was formalized as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Process. Victims were to register and then take part in a proceeding that was to be non-adversarial. It was, after all, supposed to be a healing process. The method was simple.

Our government—that is to say, you and I—admitted that wrongs had been committed. Victims were then to be listened to. Government and the churches were then to make a clean breast of what they had done. We know that this revelation/listening stage is a central part of any reconciliation process. It goes without saying that the government was expected to act honestly, to produce all information in its hands.

Instead, our government withheld a great deal of essential information. There were, they said, “no known documents of sexual abuse at Fort Albany Indian Residential School. No known incident documents of sexual abuse at Fort Albany IRS.” This was a straight lie. Not only did they ignore a basic rule of our legal system—the duty to disclose—they ignored the specific requirements laid out in documents explaining the government’s responsibilities in this reconciliation process.

What’s more, they used the resulting lack of documented information to throw into doubt, in an adversarial manner, the victims’ stories. They converted a reconciliation process into an attempt to re-wound the wounded. They set out to humiliate the victims.

However, there was some knowledge that documents existed. The survivors asked for them and were rebuffed. Eventually they went to the courts and fought our government. In January 2014 the Ontario Superior Court forced our government to release the documents and so reveal that we—it is, after all, our government—had lied.

Justice Perell wrote that the government’s refusal to admit to the contents of the seven thousand pages or to release them “had compromised the process and denied the claimants’ access to justice.” He wrote of governmental non-compliance.

In a pitiful misrepresentation of reality, an individual was made to say, on behalf of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, “We are pleased the court clarified we can disclose the documents.” Add to this an astonishing exchange of letters between the minister of justice, Peter MacKay, and an MP, Charlie Angus, and you begin to realize that our governmental attitudes have not fundamentally changed. Angus carefully points out the ministry’s improper behaviour and misleading activities. The minister replies as if nothing is wrong and avoids mentioning or dealing with the two central issues: for eleven years the government had had the information necessary for a fair process and intentionally hidden that fact or pretended they could not release it; the government’s lawyers had used this non-disclosure to undermine the First Nations victims. There is no suggestion from the minister of error. No contrition. No apology. Just a cold assertion that the department was doing its job.

In circumstances such as this I have no sympathy for myself as a citizen. It is my government, my civil service. Mine and yours. It has shamed all of us by prevaricating, lying, causing suffering to fellow citizens. In this case, the word shame must be used. We and those suffering are the Crown. We are the source of Canada’s fiduciary responsibility. And we, through our government, are cheating and humiliating citizens who have already been humiliated by our governmental education system.

Not surprisingly, the survivors wrote to the minister of justice asking that he withdraw the department’s lawyers from the process; they, the survivors, had “completely lost faith and trust” in them. “These lawyers, who are supposed to uphold the laws of Canada for all Canadians (including Aboriginal Canadians), have proved to be untruthful and unreliable.”

This is just one story. How many others are there?

Note the similarity to the Guerin case: members of the Department of Indian Affairs use their administrative power to mislead Aboriginal people. They betray the Honour of the Crown.

This is one of the reasons that the then national chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, insisted during the winter of 2012–2013 on a direct working relationship with the prime minister and the Privy Council. He knew that the First Nations must deal at that level because they are treaty partners, not wards of the state under the tutelage of a department. But he also knew that First Nations people must operate well above the corrupted systems of the Department of Indian Affairs as well as of Justice, systems originally created to destroy the department’s “wards” or, as they now put it, “clients.” The application of this commercial term to describe the relationship of citizens to the government they chose is both stupid and ignorant. The application of this term to indigenous peoples—treaty people—is, in addition, insulting. After all, what is a client? Someone who is buying goods or services based on the narrow self-interest of the seller on the one hand and of the buyer on the other. And so even this terminology is a constant reminder that Aboriginal peoples must rise above the paternalistic misuse of power on which the department has been built. They must negotiate at a higher level, as equals.

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

John Ralston Saul
John Ralston Saul is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose works have been translated into twenty-eight languages in thirty-seven countries.