Local elder meets Harper

Duane Hicks

When Naicatchewenin First Nation elder Gilbert Smith saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper offer a full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential school system back on June 11, 2008, he thought that one day he would like to thank Harper in person.
Last month he got his chance.
Smith was among the First Nations’ chiefs and other representatives from across the country who gathered in Ottawa on Jan. 24 to meet with the prime minister and members of the Conservative cabinet.
“It was an honour. Not too many of us get to meet the prime minister,” said Smith, who travelled to Ottawa with Treaty #3 elders Clifford Skead (Rat Portage First Nation), Clarence White (Whitefish Bay FN), and Tommy White (Whitefish Bay FN).
“It was kind of a shocking experience,” he admitted.
“Afterwards, I was thinking, ‘Holy smokes—I met the prime minister, I shook hands with the prime minister, I had my photo taken with the prime minister,’” he chuckled.
“It was pretty exciting,” added Smith. “It was pretty positive, too.
“That was the feeling. No negative feeling at all.”
Smith said he and the other Treaty #3 elders had a chance to meet with Harper alone for several minutes thanks to arrangements made by Kenora MP Greg Rickford.
“I wanted to thank him for the apology he made in 2008,” Smith said.
“At the time of the apology, I was watching on TV and this is what I was thinking: ‘I hope the day will come when I can tell him, personally, how much I appreciate his apology,’” he recalled.
“It struck me here, in my heart, at the time of his apology, even though not everybody else felt that way,” Smith acknowledged. “But for me, I accepted his apology.
“The way I looked at it, no prime minister had ever done what he did,” added Smith. “He appreciated hearing that.
“I also thanked him for shaking my hand,” he chuckled. “At the end, I told him, ‘This is one day I won’t forget in my life.’”
Smith said he saw Harper several other times that day, including at a luncheon, during workshops, and at the closing ceremonies.
Smith added he saw the summit as the start of more co-operation and communication between the aboriginal community and government.
“A lot of people, like Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan, came and asked me what I thought about the whole meeting. And I told him, ‘We’re doing something good. I have a good feeling about it, but we won’t know until a later time what we’re starting here.’
“He appreciated that,” noted Smith.
In related news, Smith spoke at the “Heart of the Arts” benefit here last Thursday, speaking about celebrating 30 years of sobriety this coming June and the importance of education and sobriety together.
He also spoke about the Great Depression and its impact on people at that time.
As well, Smith spoke on the Dance fire of 1938.
“I remember hearing my father talk about that, about the fire that swept through there, and he had said there had been a lot of loss of life there, and also the animals were gone,” recalled Smith.
“He had said that was our Depression. We had a pretty tough time. There was no animals, even the fish were affected by this fire,” he added.
“We went through the same thing as those who went through the Great Depression of the ’30s.
“A lot of our people died at the time—sickness, even suicides.”
Smith got an e-mail the next day which told him he touched a lot of people that night, which pleased him.
“They enjoyed it,” he remarked. “People need to hear the past, what went on, and how we got to where we are today.
Smith said he saw the “Heart of the Arts” event as a good example of people coming together—Métis, Anishnawbe, and non-native.
“It was good to see,” he remarked. “This is what I said, ‘It’s good to see people coming as one.’ And when I said that, I heard the audience and a loud clap.
“I guess I hit the nail on the head.
“I walked out of there feeling good,” Smith added.