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Canada apologizes for residential schools

B.C. First Nations welcome apology that is ‘a long time coming’

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“To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.”

Thus spoke Stephen Harper, the first Prime Minister of Canada to formally apologize for more than a century of separating and assimilating aboriginal children through the Indian Residential School system.

His apology, delivered from the floor of the House of Commons on June 11, was broadcast across the country and elicited tears from faces young and old at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre on Squamish territory in North Vancouver.

The apology was broadcast on two large screens to a standing-room only crowd of about 400 people, with First Nations leaders and residential school survivors standing among them.

The broadcast began as the Prime Minister entered the House of Commons with 12 guests, among them Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine; Mary Simon of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization that serves as the national voice of Canada’s Inuit, and Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Marguerite Wabano, a Cree woman who, at 104 years old, is the oldest survivor of the residential school system, also joined them on the floor of the House.

The Prime Minister began by recounting the history of the residential school system, a group of institutions that grew out of a government policy that sought to lift aboriginal children out of a condition of “savagery” by removing them from their parents and communities.

The schools, administered in partnership with four churches, grew out of a policy of assimilation that began with the Gradual Civilization Act in 1857. The facilities themselves were badly underfunded, according to a 1996 report, and many children later came forward with accounts of physical and sexual abuse by employees while attending the schools.

“While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children and their separation from powerless families and communities,” Harper said.

“The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative, and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”

Opposition party leaders were then given a chance to respond to the apology.

Stéphane Dion, leader of the opposition Liberals, acknowledged that his own party was in power for over 70 years of the previous century, and apologized that his party played a role in implementing the residential schools policy.

“We must, together as a nation, face the truth to ensure that we never have to apologize to another generation, that the tragedy of forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada never happens again,” he said.

Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, offered an apology on behalf of his own party and said the best apologies are followed by action.

“Think about a little village, a small community from which all children are taken away,” he said. “And from then on there are no more children between seven and 16 years of age who played in the forest. You do not hear their laughs, their joy, warming the hearts of the elders.”

Statements from aboriginal leaders followed the politicians’ apologies. Fontaine, dressed in full Ojibwa regalia, said the apology marks a new relationship between Canada and its aboriginal people. His voice broke at times as he delivered his response.

“This day testifies to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible,” he said. “The attempts to erase our identities hurt us deeply, but it also hurt all Canadians and impoverished the character of this nation. …It is possible to end our racial nightmare together.”

While the viewers at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre welcomed Fontaine with heavy applause, it was Beverley Jacobs of the Native Women’s Association of Canada who drew the most enthusiastic response.

She was thankful for the apology, but was curious to know what will come next for aboriginal peoples in Canada.

“I didn’t see any other governments before today come forward and apologize, so I do thank you for that,” she said. “But in return, the Native Women’s Association wants respect.”

Viewers at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre cheered and applauded as she spoke.

Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation, then led the centre in three traditional songs: first was a “snowbird song” to honour loved ones who have already died; second was a “warrior song” to honour loved ones working to heal and survive the past; and then a “canoe song” to honour loved ones of future generations.

Chief Gibby Jacob then said that the apology marks a point from which survivors of residential schools, along with their families and communities, need to move on.

“If we don’t quit victimizing ourselves, we don’t release ourselves from the prison we keep ourselves in,” he said.

While many at the gathering seemed to welcome the apology, there were no public statements of acceptance or forgiveness. But Campbell, speaking outside the gathering, told Pique Newsmagazine that acceptance of the apology will take time.

“This has taken 200 years to get to this point, and we can’t expect immediately we’re going to say, it’s done now,” he said. “I’m optimistic that these are all building blocks. The pendulum is now on an upswing and we’re starting to see a resurgence in pride and identity and culture and language, the young ones are hungry for that.”

Chief Leonard Andrew of the Lil’Wat Nation was in Mount Currie as the apology was broadcast. He told Pique he was surprised at the “thoroughness” of the apology and that it brought back memories of his own time in residential school.

“I think it’s sort of the beginning of something that we hope would have happened way back in the Trudeau days,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m fully satisfied, it’s a beginning of hopefully something that’s going to change throughout Canada in regards to involvement of First Nations with the federal government.”

He did not say he was ready to forgive the government for placing him in a residential school, but hopes, like Campbell, that it can mark a new beginning for First Nations people.

“Hopefully this starts that healing process that we've been waiting to happen for many, many years,” he said.