For over one hundred years, Canada removed children from their First Nation, Inuit, and Metis families, sometimes forcibly, and raised them in boarding schools a long ways from their homes. Some of the children were subject to considerable mental and physical abuse, in addition to the strains of being separated from their families and cultures. On June 11, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, made an historic apology to the indigenous communities of the nation for the terrible wrongs the government had committed.
“I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools,” he said dramatically. “The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. 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. The government of Canada now recognizes it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes….We apologize for having done this.”
He said the government was sorry not only for separating children from their families, but for undercutting the parenting abilities of the affected people. “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,” he said.
Aboriginal leaders, who were seated in the House in their native costumes, were given the opportunity to respond to Mr. Harper. Speaking first with his native headdress on, Phil Fontaine, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, spoke of his own experiences in a native residential school. “The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us.”
“What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada,” Chief Fontaine continued. “We are all part of one garment of destiny. The ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. We still have to struggle, but now we are in this together.”
Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party, concurred in the Prime Minister’s apology. “Today’s apology is about a past that should have been completely different. But it must also be about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental change. 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.”
Mary Simon, President of the national organization of Inuit peoples, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, spoke first in Inuktitut. “Mr. Prime Minister, I spoke first in my Inuit language because I wanted to illustrate to you that our language and culture are still strong.” She turned toward him and continued. “I have to face you to say this, Mr. Prime Minister, because it comes from the bottom of my heart. It took great courage for you to express your sorrow and apology to our people, the Inuit, to first nations, and to Métis, and we thank you very much for it.”
She continued, “I am one of those people who have dreamed for this day. There have been times in this long journey when I despaired that this would ever happen. However, after listening to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the political parties, I am filled with hope and compassion for my fellow aboriginal Canadians as I stand among them here with you and your fellow ministers today, Mr. Prime Minister.”
She continued, the same as the other native leaders, in a positive vein, expressing appreciation for the Prime Minister’s apology. But, she said, the problems those policies fostered will not be solved quickly. She acknowledged that there is a lot of work to do to rebuild the communities of the Inuit and the other aboriginal peoples of Canada.
Ms. Simon concluded, “We need the help and support of all thoughtful Canadians and our governments to rebuild strong and healthy families and communities. This can be achieved only when dignity, confidence and respect for traditional values and human rights once again become part of our daily lives and are mirrored in our relationships with governments and other Canadians. I stand here today ready to work with you, as Inuit have always done, to craft new solutions and new arrangements based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility.”