The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops plenary meeting had barely begun Monday morning when the floor was turned to its most highly anticipated speaker. This would be the first time that an Assembly of First Nations National Chief addressed the annual gathering.
Phil Fontaine was set to chasten the Canadian bishops for their lack of collective apology for abuses committed in residential schools, or so forewarned the AFN communications director just days prior. (The CCCB reiterates here
why they have not.)
It became clear from his first words that this would be a very different kind of address. Fontaine began by admitting his anxiety over addressing the bishops, presumably because of past tensions between him and some in the audience over the residential school issue. He then offered an apology of his own:
“My actions have caused those of you who have been involved—so deeply involved for so long—to wonder if it would ever be possible to look each other in the eye to say whether there is any hope. … I stand here to commit myself to working with the Catholic Church to rebuild this historic relationship that brought so much good to so many people.”
Fontaine explained that he was approaching the CCCB for reconciliation and partnership. He acknowledged that while many people continue to misunderstand aboriginal issues, the Catholic bishops believe in the potential of the First Nations people and know well their plight. Fontaine asked the bishops to become advocates on the issue of First Nations poverty, which he remarked had been all but forgotten on the federal election campaign trail.
Then in remarks that took some observers by surprise, Fontaine called for Catholics to once again be involved in First Nations education.
“I see no reason why the Catholic Church shouldn’t be involved in the education of our people,” said the AFN National Chief in reference to successful Catholic boarding schools for American Cherokees. He also pointed to how many Aboriginal Canadians had positive experiences in Catholic schools.
The Canadian government’s official apology—“June 11th” as Fontaine refers to it simply—may have indeed turned a page in our nation’s history. By envisioning a new relationship between the Church and First Nations peoples, Monday’s address manifested this new hope.