PM acknowledges country's racist past; 'The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us.'
June 12, 2008 Sue Bailey
The Canadian Press OTTAWA
After more than a century of torment that saw the federal government strive to silence their languages and snuff their culture, aboriginal people packed Parliament to hear the prime minister say it for all Canadians: "We are sorry.'' Stephen Harper made the historic apology yesterday in the House of Commons for generations of racist policy meant to "kill the Indian in the child.''
Eleven guests of honour sat before him in a native restitution circle, some trembling with emotion. Above them in the gallery, survivors of abuse in federal schools geared to "Christianize'' them clasped each other's hands, bowed their heads, and cried. "The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,'' said Harper, reading from a text he helped draft with input from native advisers. "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.''
Applause repeatedly rained down on aging survivors of the church-run schools. But the most thunderous ovation was reserved for Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine, who endured repeated sexual attacks as a little boy at the Fort Alexander residential school in Manitoba. Wearing full Ojibway regalia and headdress, Fontaine was belatedly allowed to respond to the apology in the Commons after days of contentious resistance by the Conservatives. He made it one of his finest moments. "Brave survivors, through telling their stories, have stripped white supremacy of its legitimacy,'' he said to jubilant shouts and the rhythm of drumbeats. "Never again will this House consider us the Indian Problem just for being who we are. "We are, and always have been, an indispensable part of the Canadian identity.''
Hundreds of people watched the apology on a big screen set up on the lawn of Parliament Hill, while thousands more absorbed the event at more than 30 gatherings across the country. They heard Fontaine struggle with a pain that he still carries. "The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls,'' he said, as he fought tears. "This day will help us to put that pain behind us. "The attempt to erase our identity hurt us deeply, but it also hurt all Canadians and impoverished the character of this nation. "We must not falter in our duty now. Emboldened by the this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together.''
Harper made no attempt to deny what the government sought to do when it established the residential schools in the 1870s. "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,'' he said. "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.' Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe drew cheers from the galleries when he challenged Harper to back up the apology with action by signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- something the Conservative government has refused to do. Duceppe also called for the federal government to negotiate with native people nation-to-nation.
The apology is part of a massive compensation and healing package expected to top $4 billion. About 100 men and women, many of whom have struggled with addictions they trace to residential schools, offered prayers early yesterday for those who didn't live to hear Harper's statement. About 150,000 students attended 130 church-run schools for much of the last century. It's estimated that more than 80,000 are still living. While many students say they received a good education, Ottawa acknowledged in 1998 that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the once-mandatory institutions. That same year, the United Church officially apologized for such devastating harms. Bewildered children, many of whom did not speak English and had been forcibly taken from their homes, were harshly punished and sometimes beaten for speaking their languages. Others were subjected to the sadistic attacks of sexual predators, some of whom terrorized the youngsters in their care for decades with impunity. Harper's apology was expected to trigger horrendous memories for many people.
The Assembly of First Nations worked with Health Canada to ensure counsellors would be available on Parliament Hill and at related events planned in most provinces. A 24-hour, toll-free crisis line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
Many former students have said all along that a sincere apology from the heart of a prime minister would be worth much more than money. The Conservatives refused such calls for months after they took the helm in 2006, but have since turned about. Still, yesterday's statement won't be enough, said Gilbert Johnson. He was among the 18 claimants who went public with horrific accounts of rape and beatings at the Port Alberni residential school on Vancouver Island. Dormitory supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, now deceased, was convicted in March 1995 and sentenced to 11 years. That groundbreaking court victory gave many others the courage to come forward, bolstering class-action claims that ultimately pressured Ottawa to settle and, finally, apologize.
The Canadian Press Johnson, now 54, had no plans to attend or even watch Harper's statement yesterday. "If the government had any care, it would have given an apology to us years ago,'' he said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a little late.'' His old classmate and close friend, Willie Blackwater, disagrees. He was overcome with emotion as Harper spoke and said he wouldn't have missed what he called a moving apology from the heart. "We didn't know what the wording was going to be but I think they covered everything. They talked about the pain, the assimilation, the destruction of family and how it's still affecting our communities.'' Blackwater wiped tears and drew a breath when asked if he liked the apology enough to forgive. "If I'm able to forgive my perpetrator I can forgive Canada,'' he said of Plint. "And I've forgiven my perpetrator.'' He then smiled and added: "It took a long time. I would have forgiven them a long time ago if they did this.''
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 1870s, 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. God bless all of you and God bless our land.
Excerpts from Harper speech
www.therecord.com - video of speech