“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
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.