Canada’s Apology to Aboriginals (3.1)

Left, Prime Minister Harper in the House of Commons delivering the apology, and in front of him, seated, are Patrick Brazeau (Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), Mary Simon (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), and Phil Fontaine (Assembly of First Nations).

Today (June 11, 2008) saw many packed venues around Canada (not in quotes this time, the point has been made already) as Aboriginal survivors of the residential school era and Canadians viewed live public screenings of the apology made by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Parliament in Ottawa (which happens to be situated on territory that was never ceded by the Algonquins).

The event began shortly after 3:00pm and lasted most of the remainder of the afternoon, with speeches given by those shown below. Notes of the most memorable statements have been inserted below, with links to the respective organizations represented by the speakers.

The subject of the apology was the treatment meted out to aboriginal children in Canada in state-funded residential schools and the attempt to force assimilation, resulting in damage to aboriginal societies and families, and numerous deaths. Over 150,000 children were pulled into these schools, away from their families and communities, with the separation sometimes lasting for several years. Children were severely beaten and punished for speaking their indigenous languages. Many died and the families were either not informed, or were under-informed about the reasons for the deaths, and the children were often buried in unmarked graves — given that these schools were run by churches, where unmarked graves are not standard practice for their own congregations, one can only assume that these children were either not respected as human, or crimes were being covered up. The last residential school closed in 1996. Over 87,000 survivors are currently living. In September of 2007, after several years of work by a Royal Commission, the Federal Government settled on a $1.9 billion compensation package, with cash payments having been already distributed, in part. (Update: see the bottom of this post for news about the apology offered by the government of Manitoba on June 12, 2008.)


Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Conservative Party of Canada

Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.

In the 1870’s, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools.

Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

Most schools were operated as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches. The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.

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.

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.

The legacy of Indian residential schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today. It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and to the strength of their cultures.

Regrettably, many former students are not with us today and died never having received a full apology from the government of Canada. The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation.

Therefore, on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian residential schools system.

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.

We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.

We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.

We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.

Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry. The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long.

The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail.

You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

We are sorry.

In moving towards healing, reconciliation and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian residential schools, implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement began on September 19, 2007.

Years of work by survivors, communities, and aboriginal organizations culminated in an agreement that gives us a new beginning and an opportunity to move forward together in partnership. A cornerstone of the settlement agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian residential schools system.

It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the 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.


Part One (also see videopod in sidebar)

Part Two (also see videopod in sidebar)

Stéphane Dion, Leader of the Opposition, Liberal Party of Canada

“As the leader of the party that was in government for more than seventy years of the last century, I acknowledge our role and our shared responsibility in this tragedy….I am deeply sorry….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….For too long, Canadian governments chose to ignore the consequences of this tragedy instead of trying to understand them, so that the suffering of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities continues to this day. Today, we lay the first stone in the building of a new monument. A monument dedicated to truth, reconciliation and healing.” Dion’s speech seemed to last much longer than Harper’s. The video of his speech is available here.

Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Québécois

Duceppe, leader of the Federalist arm of the Quebec separatist movement, made what was possibly the most memorable statement. He was red faced, vigorous, and sharp, as he attacked the current government for offering an apology when it continued to reject signing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He spent some time recounting actual horrors that were suffered by the children and their families, using some Quebec examples as well. He called on the Federal Government to begin recognizing and negotiating with aboriginal peoples on a nation-to-nation basis.

Jack Layton, New Democratic Party

Layton was possibly the most emotional of the speakers, clearly becoming tearful at one point. He was credited by the Prime Minister for having worked, in confidence, and across party lines, in pressing the Prime Minister toward making today’s apology. Like the other leaders, Layton added his own apology, in a very soft spoken statement. He ended by saying that if the apology was to be meaningful, it will have to be backed up and followed up with some concrete action. Layton was the first speaker of the day to use the word “racist” when describing the residential school policy. (Update: the full text of Layton’s response is now available here.)



Five aboriginal leaders presented, in most cases, improvised responses to the apologies offered by the political leaders. It should be noted that, as a result of a history of colonial divide-and-rule, aboriginals in Canada are divided by the Federal state into a number of different categories: Métis (descendants of French and Aboriginals, many of whom are Cree speakers and live by hunting and gathering), First Nations (reserve-based communities headed by band councils), non-status Indians (those who lost rights to remain on reserves because female parents married non-aboriginals), and Inuit (residents of the Circum Polar region of Canada). All of these groups count survivors of residential schools among their members.

Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

Fontaine spoke first, among the aboriginal representatives, using prepared remarks. He was also a victim of physical and sexual abuse as a residential school student. His most powerful statement, in my view, was his challenge to “white supremacy,” saying it had lost legitimacy and authority. He also spoke of the resilience of aboriginal peoples in maintaining so much of their heritages, cultures, and languages. In his own words: “Brave survivors, through the telling of their painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy….The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us.”


Patrick Brazeau, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples

Brazeau spoke briefly and quickly. His main message seemed to be simply to thank the Prime Minister for his apology. Brazeau claims to represent urban, non-status aboriginals, who no longer formally belong to any nation, though he did say he belonged to the Algonquin Nation in his statement today. He has had very close ties with the current government.

Mary Simon, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Canadian Ambassador to Denmark

Simon spoke in Inuktitut at first, to make the point that indigenous languages continued to survive in Canada. Indeed, almost all of the aboriginal speakers made two distinct points — while tragic and painful, on the one hand, the residential school history did not mean that aboriginal cultures were completely erased and lost. The emphasis was on showing that aboriginal peoples are not hopeless basket cases. In her own words: “I wanted to demonstrate to you that our language and culture is still strong….There have been times in this long journey when I despaired that this would never happen. But after listening to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the political parties, I’m filled with hope and compassion for my fellow aboriginal Canadians.”

Clément Chartier, Métis Nation of Canada

Chartier, who appeared to be the most jovial person in the House, made repeated reference to the ways that the Federal government, and accounts of the residential school system, excluded the Métis experience as a non-aboriginal one. Indeed, news commentators noted that it was not until 1982 that Canada even recognized the Métis as aboriginal. Text of his speech:

Prime Minister, members of Parliament, friends, and Canadian citizens, it is a great day.

On behalf of the Métis Nation, I want to express a deep sense of thanks and gratitude to the Prime Minister today for offering this most sincere apology to those people who have experienced the Indian residential schools system.

It has been a long time coming, but it has been well received. I hope and I pray that it will resonate in the communities of those people who have been affected.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of Indian Affairs know that although I am very sincere and happy, perhaps, that this is happening, I also feel deeply conflicted, because there is still misunderstanding about the situation of the Métis Nation, our history and our contemporary situation.

We have had serious discussions with the Minister of Indian Affairs. We have agreed, and I believe the Prime Minister is supportive, that we will, based on this apology today, address those issues that are outstanding to our people, the Métis. I believe those statements made today about the dark days of the assimilation policies and I believe those actions that took place in this House will be addressed and hopefully corrected in the future.

I really do feel conflicted, because I am one of the survivors of a Métis residential school, which was no different from Indian residential schools except for the question of who paid. As for who paid, it was those young people who went there, people like Don*, people like me. We paid.

I hope and I do believe sincerely in the words of the minister that we will address this. I said that the Métis Nation would be here to share this day with those people who have waited for so long. We want to celebrate, and we do celebrate, with them, with you, with all Canadians, because this is a day for all Canadians. It is a day for us to move forward.

I know deep in my heart that the party leaders and the Prime Minister who spoke today spoke with sincerity, not with the theatrics of the Commons. That has been set aside. I can see that. I can feel that. I know that it is deep and it is real.

Finally, Prime Minister, the Métis Nation of western Canada, which has been excluded from many things by the workings of this House and its policies, wants in.

Thank you.

Beverly Jacobs, Native Women’s Association

Jacobs was a tough speaker, soft spoken in tone, but the choice of words was very direct — “we fought you.” The House laughed…I’m not sure they understood her pride in that statement. Jacobs began by speaking in the Haudenosaunee language, and identified herself as a Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (what scholars and the wider public previously called the Iroquois). Jacobs emphasized the degree to which women suffered from Canadian patriarchy, and also emphasized current cultural and linguistic revitalization, and renewed respect for the role of women, in communities such as hers.

More notes and comments may be added in coming days.



Video of the apology from the BBC (also check the OA videopod in the sidebar of this blog)



With a report from The Canadian Press
June 12, 2008

Globe editorial
Canada’s expression of sorrow
June 12, 2008

Whose truth? What reconciliation?
June 12, 2008

When is an apology not enough? or too much?
June 12, 2008

‘It’s just a bunch of words’
For one native man, now 71, PM’s apology comes ‘a little too late’

June 12, 2008

A personal history of life in the residential schools

June 11, 2008

Schools not entirely bad, native writer contends
June 11, 2008


Credit to Harper for this apology

June 12, 2008


As reported by CBC News, “Manitoba offers moving apology to residential-school students,” a day after the Federal government offered its apology for the treatment suffered by aboriginals in residential schools, Manitoba followed suit with its own apology. Manitoba’s Minister for Culture, Eric Robinson, is himself a survivor of the system, and he spoke in the provincial parliament of the abuse he suffered:

I, like many of you joining us in the gallery today, was taken away from my family as a five-year-old … and placed in a world that taught me everything I knew was wrong. It’s difficult to remember many aspects of those early years, but I can still taste the lye soap placed in my mouth for speaking my language, Cree. Other memories are more difficult to relive. Being molested at a young age by a priest has brought me a lifetime of pain and anguish … but I still consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones, because at a young age I was able to leave. I have come to understand that the one positive thing about my experience is the fire ignited within me that burns to this day.