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OPINION: Pope's apology skips over 'preventable trauma'

'If the Church and governments want to fix the problem, then they should acknowledge that they are responsible,' says local elder
pope apology photo1
An apology from the Pope did not go far enough, says local elder.

As a boy I would watch a small tugboat, the R.A. Hoey, labouring hard to pull a rusted scow back and forth between Christian Island and Cedar Point in Georgian Bay.

Tied precariously to the side of the diminutive tug, the scow was often loaded with cars, and occasionally heavy equipment or dump trucks. It was an accident waiting to happen.

The tiny tug could be seen listing to one side when she would be heaving, full throttle, a dark black smokestack trailing behind her as she puffed along burdened by the old scow loaded with vehicles while slowly, deliberately, plying the channel.

It wasn’t the fault of the ferry operators whose expert, deft seamanship created this makeshift mode of transport out of necessity. It wasn’t the fault of the leadership who, for years, had already been pressing the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada of their need for a safe reliable car ferry capable of carrying freight.

A growing community created a demand for a car ferry of some sort by that point in its history (1970s). The people did what they had to with the little resources they could muster.

Then came that fateful summer day when tragedy struck and passengers on board the R.A. Hoey watched in horror as a car slid off the old scow and sunk into the deepest part of the channel between Christian Island and Cedar Point. In the car was a woman. The bay took her as well. The tragedy became the lead story for newspapers and television news broadcasts. The victim of this tragedy was a non-native tourist.

The federal government, embarrassed by their part in what was obvious to many, a preventable accident, moved quickly to remedy the problem by assisting the Chief and Council in purchasing a regulated car ferry.

Ten years later, another tragedy would befall our community and it would lead to the replacement of the R.A. Hoey when we lost two of our young men who fell overboard one stormy cold December night.

Again, the federal government would be embarrassed into acting, despite years of lobbying by our leadership for a replacement ferry.

I am reminded of these preventable tragedies, these spiritual abuses, as I watched the Pope’s visit to Turtle Island and listened to his partial apology to the Indigenous people on our ancestral territory.

The Pontiff, motivated by the sudden disclosure of 215 small bodies found in shallow graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops B.C in 2021 — and the resulting worldwide media firestorm — moved quickly to quell the outcry, the shaming that was directed toward the Catholic Church.

His partial apology will put a Band Aid on old wounds and that will soothe things for a time.

But we, the Indigenous, will soon realize that we must go back to our old lives of seeking/demanding equitable resources to live comfortably on our small parcels of land (Reserves).

We will go back to our insufficient housing, our lack of safe drinking water, our lack of access to adequate health services, etc. We will see that once again, after another apology, nothing has really changed. And we will scar. Spiritually.

Every trauma Indigenous people have ever experienced has been preventable.

Every trauma Indigenous people have ever experienced has been the result of our self-imposed fiduciary agents not living up to their responsibilities. That includes organized religious institutions who partnered with Canada to deliver those traumas, including the Catholic Church.

The Pope, and Canada, can apologize again and some more. But if that apology doesn’t come with any tools for substantive change, the status quo will remain. The grievances will continue to fester.

The Pope should have been able to say sorry for what the Catholic Church has done. He should have been able to say, 'Here is how we are going to fix it. Together, in an inclusive reconciliatory process.'

That’s how fiduciaries are obligated to act by law. Beyond that even, this is how treaty partners are supposed to treat one another.

The spiritual, mental, physical abuse of Indigenous people continues. All preventable. All in the open.

If the Church and governments want to fix the problem, then they should acknowledge that they are responsible. You should dare to say words like sexual abuse of children, institutionalized racism and yes, genocide.

Preventable trauma of Indigenous people should not continue to be commonplace. Be respectful of your treaty partners by allowing us to be part of the solution. Reconciliation should not be yet another band aid.

Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the Superintendent of Springwater Provincial Park. He writes a regular column for OrilliaMatters.