Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Apology on the Indian Residential Schools System
House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada
The Prime Minister’s apology to the survivors of the Indian residential schools system on June 11th 2008 was an historic moment for Canadians and Aboriginal nations. The government’s apology delivered in the House of Commons formally addressed the wrongness of Canada’s assimilation policies towards Aboriginal Peoples and also the ongoing inter-generational legacies affecting survivors and Aboriginal communities. It was a historical step in line with the 2006 Residential Schools Settlement and the House of Commons apology in 2007.[i]
The apology was followed by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition Parties apologies and statements from Aboriginal leaders permitted to witness on the floor of the chamber. A successful motion acceded by the government through Minister Peter Van Loan permitted a small delegation of former residential school survivors to gather and give statements in the chamber.[ii] The motion, the speeches by the Prime Minister, leaders of the opposition and statements by Aboriginal leaders can be found in the following official record: Official Record – 39th Parliament, 2nd Session, Wednesday, June 11th 2008.
The governments apology has been unfortunately the subject of criticism. The apology was in itself an issue forced onto the Government by political pressure and its timing seemingly calculated to avoid further complications with the 2006 settlement terms and compensation payments. The latter in particular contributed to the undermining of the government’s sincerity and help cement the perception of lack of political will for substantive action.
The content of the apology has also received some attention. As a Canadian, the apology fails in its basic accountability to the Canadian public which was neither mentioned nor recognized. As Chief Phil Fontaine noted, the government’s apology failed to acknowledge how the residential schools have “also hurt all Canadians and impoverished the character of this nation”.[iii] This is in my opinion telling of the government’s and the official opposition parties’ reflections.
The residential schools continue to be a traumatic and inter-generational legacy for Aboriginal peoples. The loss of culture, language and spiritual traditions continue to affect and damage inter-generational Aboriginal families and communities. The legacies continue also deeply damage inter-generational parent-child relationships today in the disproportionate number of Aboriginal children being in foster care. Despite the apology, this past continues to be a living legacy that affects how Aboriginal nations each see themselves, where Canadians and Aboriginal peoples see each other coming from and also where they are both going.
“For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities. 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.”[iv]
Prime Minister, Stephen Harper
[i] The Settlement papers are available here: http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca/settlement.html. The Hansard entries for the May 1st 2007 House of Commons apology can be accessed here: http://openparliament.ca/debates/2007/5/1/chris-warkentin-2/ and the Senate debates here: http://www.larrycampbell.ca/articles/residentialschools-e.pdf