SASKATOON — Phil Fontaine spoke on the meaning of reconciliation Nov. 30 at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.
As someone who has devoted his life to pursuing reconciliation, Fontaine exudes his life’s passion of building reconciliation across North America and more foundationally, in his own life. Having served as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations for three terms, his call to bring people together in understanding and action has been recognized with 16 honourary doctorates and a host of other awards.
Dr. Terrence Downey, president of St. Thomas More College, said the event was a “historic evening.” Fontaine’s public lecture was hosted by the Chair in Indigenous Spirituality and Reconciliation at St. Thomas More College, the first public event organized by this chair.
The message of the evening was crystalized in the preamble, which focused on the necessity of recognizing and working through our burdens together as peoples.
The first burden requiring acknowledgment is that of the wrong that has been committed. Second, there is the burden of guilt borne by the institutions that inflicted the harm. Healing begins with our words in admitting liability and taking steps toward reconciliation. Fontaine gave examples of both individual and collective actions that are leading toward healing.
Another step forward took place in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the harm caused by the residential schools. Fontaine was one of the representatives invited to the Vatican for the meeting with the pontiff.
On a personal level, Fontaine shared stories about Archbishop Emeritus James Weisgerber being adopted into Fontaine’s family. He spoke with delight of the enthusiasm of his grandson when “Uncle Jimmy” sent him a gift.
Words that are sincere must flow into action, and according to Fontaine this action can be measured for institutions. In looking at history, institutions can examine what they have done and not done in committing or enabling harm toward indigenous peoples.
Once harm has been recognized and admitted, reconciliation can begin. For instance, if we refused to hire indigenous people in the past we can change our policy to begin to reverse that harm. Another example would be if we taught history with a colonizing worldview, we can teach history now with an opposite view.
Fontaine cautioned against not following words with actions, and pointed to the federal government’s recent decision on pipelines as an example.
Another dimension of reconciliation is within indigenous communities, where the lead must be taken from inside.
Acknowledging that there is much work to be done with the Indian Act, Fontaine pointed to the act as the only legislation in Canada directed at a specific race.
It is vital to understand Canada for what it was, what it is, who we are now, and why we behaved the way we did, Fontaine said.
One way of coming to understand ourselves was presented as the “ultimate expression of reconciliation” — this idea being to “fix our origin story.” Canada began as a nation of British origin, as presented by the British Empire. In the 1950s and 1960s, French nationalists began to question that story. We then evolved into a two-nation state. Now we know this story is missing a piece. Why not enlighten our way into a three-nation story? Fontaine suggested this could happen for the 150th birthday of our country.
He noted that the Constitution does not need to change for this to take place. Rather, similar to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, it could be passed as a federal bill. Fontaine suggested that participants contact their MPs about the idea.
Fontaine’s address ended with him highlighting the pain that all people have suffered, and the desired intention to restore relationships for all people affected by this hurt.
As the floor was opened for questions, Fontaine highlighted how crucial it is to build on hope and look to stories of success. Examples cited, included increasingly high enrolment of indigenous students in post-secondary institutions, indigenous peoples being represented in many levels of politics, and the over 40,000 businesses in Canada owned and managed by indigenous individuals.