After years of down-playing or outright ignoring the pain and suffering of former residential-school students, the Canadian government finally stepped up to the plate and delivered an apology for the sexual, physical and mental abuse suffered at the church-run schools by over 150,000 students.
“The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in the nationally-broadcast apology in the House of Commons June 11.
“Today, we recognize this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country,” he continued. “The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.”
In what appeared to be a genuine, heartfelt apology, Harper spoke solemnly about one of the darkest chapters in Canada’s past.
“The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation,” said Prime Minister Harper. “Years of work by survivors, communities and Aboriginal organizations culminated in an Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
He also touched on the loss of language, culture and identity many Nations and individuals encountered in a thinly-disguised attempt at “killing the Indian in the child.”
Although Harper said that the apology reflected the Conservatives willingness to work with Aboriginal peoples through many new initiatives involving residential
schools, he stopped short of addressing his party’s failure to recognize Indigenous rights before the United Nations – something two of the three other parties capitalized on.
“We have to immediately recognize the rights and the culture of the Inuit, Metis and First Nations people by signing the U.N. declaration of rights for Aboriginal peoples,” said NDP leader Jack Layton.
“The horrors of the residential schools continue to harm even those who never experienced them personally,” he said. “There can be no equivocation of laws consciously enacted in this house that put the residential schools into place and kept them going for many years. It is in this house that we must start the process of reconciliation. That is why we are here together today to say we are sorry.
“The apology must not be an end, it must be a beginning,” he said.
“Today’s apology is about a past that should have been completely different,” said Liberal leader Stephane Dion. “But it must be also about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental changes.
“It must be about moving forward together, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, into a future based on respect. It is about trying to find in each of us some of the immense courage that we see in the eyes of those who have survived.”
Bloc Party leader Gilles Duceppe gave a fiery speech that called upon Canada to recognize the U.N. decree and to aid the most vulnerable people in Aboriginal society – the children.
After each of the party leaders spoke, Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine addressed the country.
“This day amounts to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible,” he said.
Fontaine, from the Sagkeeng First Nation community in Manitoba, wore a traditional Ojibwa headdress for the historic occasion. He also brought with him the oldest and youngest residential school survivors as well as other representatives from various Aboriginal organizations across the country.
“The significance of this day is not just about what has been, but equally important, what is to come,” said National Chief Fontaine. “Never again will this house consider us the Indian problem just for being who we are.
“Finally we heard Canada say it is sorry,” he said. “What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada.” Towards the end of his speech, Harper stressed his vision of a positive future for everyone in Canada.
“These are the foundations of a new relationship between Aboriginal people and other Canadians, a relationship based on knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.”
Residential School Survivors: A 24 hour toll-free crisis line is available every day to provide immediate emotional assistance: 1-866-925-4419. Other support services and information for survivors is available on the AFN website at: http://www.afn.ca/residentialschools/resou rces.html.