VANCOUVER – The daughter of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. says economic injustice must be addressed as part of the reconciliation process with Canada’s First Nations.
Bernice King said a history of pain and abuse can’t be erased with an apology, and money for programs won’t undo the suffering that can take generations to overcome.
“We still suffer in America, as an African-American community,” she told reporters on Saturday, referring to the lingering effects of slavery and oppression.
King, 50, said her maternal great-grandmother was part Cherokee and there is Indian ancestry on her father’s side as well.
On Sunday, the Baptist minister is to deliver the keynote address at the start of a walk for reconciliation related to Canada’s residential school system.
A week-long gathering of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission includes a recording of stories from former students and their families.
King was introduced Saturday by Karen Joseph, executive director of Reconciliation Canada, who said her appearance at the event is especially meaningful this year, during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
King said she spent some time on Saturday with Joseph and her father, Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwawaneuk First Nation on Vancouver Island, to learn about the horrific impact of the Indian Residential School System on First Nations people.
“I’m a little numb right now,” King said, adding she felt helpless hearing about the atrocities suffered by young children who were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to government-funded, church-run schools, where many endured physical and sexual abuse.
“The manner in which people, human beings, have been treated, it’s inexcusable,” King said.
However, she said society as a whole must take responsibility for past wrongs and take steps to envision a different future.
“The reality is that although you have a historical context you also have current policies and behaviour and attitudes that kind of reinforce the pain.”
King said reconciliation of past wrongs will bring healing, but empowering people with economic opportunities is the key to their well-being.
“My father, if you study his life’s work, was in the midst of addressing economic injustice. In fact, he saw economic injustice as inseparable twins and so he spent the last three years of his life really raising the issue and talked about it during the poor people’s campaign that he was crusading for when he was assassinated in Memphis.”
“So going forward, there have to be opportunities made to truly empower First Nations people. That’s the same struggle we face, a little bit different from theirs, in America.”
King said she has a tough time grappling with the suffering of people that continues all over the world.
“We’ve created, as my father said, this wonderful house, this wonderful neighbourhood, but we have not found a way to create a brother and sisterhood. And if we don’t, we’re going to perish together as fools.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission events in Vancouver are part of the sixth of seven national gatherings to inform Canadians about the residential school system through testimonies from former students and their families.
Residential schools were operated across Canada for than century in the belief that aboriginal children could assimilate into mainstream society by adopting Canadian customs.
Various churches and the federal government have apologized for the substandard conditions and abuse suffered by students.
About 75,000 former residential school students have also received financial compensation as part of Canada’s attempts to address past policies.