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Gov't of Canada apologize for 100 years of atrocities


Christine Fiddler, Windspeaker Staff Writer, OTTAWA







One day before the June 11 apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, residential school survivor, Phil Morin, predicted the words would only be a small step to help Aboriginal people recover from the residential school system. He knew it would need to be followed with major action to be sincere ­ a view that seemed to be held by the majority of Aboriginal people across the country.
"It's not going to make a whole lot of difference right away as far as I'm concerned," the Peter Ballentyne Cree Nation band member said from Saskatchewan. "It will depend on how sincere the government is, if they're willing to provide some resources, education system, create jobs for our people, then the apology will mean something. Otherwise it won't mean a thing at all in the long run."
At 70 years old, Morin has had a long journey as a survivor of three residential schools: the Guy Indian Residential School, the Pas Residential School, and the Lebret Indian Residential School.
"I hope he will say that they will do everything they can to share the resources in this country that rightfully belong to First Nations people. We can't continue to live how we do, with one society benefiting more than the other. That was not the spirit and intent of the treaty. We were supposed to co-exist peacefully," he added. More importantly, he hopes the apology alleviates the negative legacy of abuses and addictions that residential schools brought onto the Aboriginal population.
"We want to get rid of this thing once and for all. This bad experience and go ahead and turn the page and look into a brighter day. That's what we want, and it's good for First Nations people and it's good for the people of Canada. It's good for our children to look to a better future, that's what it's all about," he said.
Ted Quewazance, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors Society, was also concerned about government action after the apology, as he waited expectantly the day before it was to be delivered.
"The fear I got is after the apology they wash their hands clean of what they did to little children, that's my concern," he said. "They don't just say, 'we're sorry it happened' and it's sincere and then life continues in our communities, that's not the answer. Canada has to understand this really, really happened, because there is a lot of denial right across this country," Quewazance added.
"There has to be a 25-30 year healing strategy set up for individuals, families, and communities, the churches have to be involved in it. You can see what's happening in our communities, the gangs, the drugs, that's the continuation of the residential school legacy. And it's the responsibility of us, as survivors, and families, to deal with it. But we can't deal with it without resources," he expressed.
Almost thirty years have passed since the last church-operated residential schools were closed down, schools that were run in partnership with a government that followed strict policies to deal with Aboriginal people. In the cheapest possible effort to fulfill its treaty agreement for Aboriginal education, Ottawa built the residential schools and paid churches on a per capita basis to take in Native children.
The federal government started funding the schools in 1874, and about 150,000 Native children were put through its program until 1970, when they were forced to abandon their culture and traditions and endured many forms of abuses.
David Newhouse, a professor at Ontario's Trent University and an expert on the political aspects related to the federal government's apology for the residential school system, said the apology signifies an acknowledgement of a historic wrong done by the Canadian state that will be placed into the public record of Canada's history and collective memory.
"I think it also sets the stage for further action. It's somewhat the very first stage of reconciliation. For a lot of people, it's recognition, it's very important, that people have been heard, than they don't feel powerless," he said. Newhouse also commented on the possibility that the apology could be simply a political move by a Conservative government that doesn't have a great deal of credibility among Aboriginal peoples.
"They were responsible for the killing of the Kelowna Accord, (and) Harper hasn't been very supportive in previous (decisions) on the lives of Aboriginal peoples and rights. And so if it's done right it may buy them some credibility," he said.
"But the question is, at least in my own mind, are they doing this grudgingly or do they really feel regret, is it a real apology? And I think that's going to be the most important question that people are going to be trying to answer when the Prime Minister stands up in the House. 'Is this real and does he mean it?' " he asked.
Newhouse went on to say that if Aboriginal leaders were part of the consultation process leading up to the apology, more Aboriginal people would be likely to accept it's content. He said it was unfortunate that it had to be formed solely on the government's agenda.
The day the apology was delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many Aboriginal people paid close attention as he finally admitted that residential schools were wrong. Wrong as part of an overall federal policy to assimilate Aboriginal people into the population of European immigrants.
"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," Harper stated in his apology from the House of Commons.
"While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools ­ 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."
He went on to stress the government's renewed commitment to working with Aboriginal people to help them recover from the residential school experience.
"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," Harper further stated in his speech.
A small group of Aboriginal leaders and residential schools survivors entered the House of Commons just before the speech and took their place in a circle of chairs at the centre of the floor, with various MP's looking on from their seats and the whole country watching from televised screens. The oldest living survivor, Marguerite Wabano, 104, of Moosonee, Ontario was among the five other residential school survivors brought onto the floor to hear Harper apologize on behalf of all Canadians.
Just before Harper began, a motion was brought forth to allow a response from five Aboriginal leaders: Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Patrick Brazeau, Métis National Council President Clément Chartier, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Mary Simon, and President of the National Women's Association of Canada Beverley Jacobs.
Fontaine's response to the apology reaffirmed the event as a historic moment in Canada and a new dawn in the relationship between Aboriginal people and the rest of Canada.
"For the generations that will follow us, we bear witness today in this House that our survival as First Nations peoples in this land is affirmed forever. Therefore, the significance of this day is not just about what has been, but, equally important, what is to come," he said. "Emboldened by this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together."
In an interview with media afterward, Fontaine stressed his hopes of the government recognizing the need to deal with First Nations poverty as the single most important social justice issue in the country.
Jacobs said her participation as one of the Aboriginal leaders at the House of Commons event brought about a wide range of emotions.
"We did not know what he was going to say, and were a little apprehensive about what is he going to say, is it real, is it sincere?" Jacobs explained in an interview soon after the apology. "And so there were a lot of questions that I had, are they going to talk about the effects on Aboriginal women specifically and the dishonour to our mothers and grandmothers. I listened for those things and there were some things that I needed to respond to." Like many others she is concerned about the need for government to follow with action.
"They need to start respecting us as a people in those original relationships and that we can make decisions on our own and we know what needs to be done in our communities," she said. As far as accepting the apology, Jacobs stated she did not accept it, although she thanked the Prime Minister for his effort.
"To all the leaders of the Liberals, the Bloc and NDP, thank you, as well, for your words because now it is about our responsibilities today, the decisions that we make today and how they will affect seven generations from now," Jacobs stated in her response to the apology in the House of Commons.
"My ancestors did the same seven generations ago and they tried hard to fight against you because they knew what was happening. They knew what was coming, but we have had so much impact from colonization and that is what we are dealing with today. Women have taken the brunt of it all."
Jacobs further asked Harper what is going to be provided to help the situation, as the government begins to work in partnership with Aboriginal people. "I acknowledged that he did it and that this government did it, but it's another thing, it's the action that needs to occur, that needs to come with it," she said.
On a different note, Inuit leader Mary Simon said although she accepted the apology as it stood, the forgiveness itself has to come on an individual basis from Inuit survivors.
"But as a leader, as the national leader I acknowledge that we are okay with the apology," she said in an interview. "I think it was comprehensive, we were looking for specific mention of Inuit and also we wanted enough detail so that it could be all encompassing of the issues, that people have been talking about. And there's quite a bit of detail in that apology so I think people could identify with it."
Simon's response to the apology expressed optimism for a renewed "commitment to reconciliation and building a new relationship with Inuit, Métis, and First Nations." She said a major problem faced by the Inuit population she represents is the government not recognizing some of the schools of the Labrador Inuit and Nunavik as part of the residential school settlement agreement.
"They've been excluded for different reasons, it varied from region to region, in Labrador, it's because these schools, boarding schools, were provincially run schools, and they weren't under the authority of the federal government. There's no record of them being at that school, even though they were," she explained, adding that the issue needs to be resolved because students suffered the same abuses and effects are seen in the generations of residential school survivors and their children.
"Sometimes it's hard to know exactly why somebody's behaviour is going a certain way, but when you look at the number of people who have similar type issues, that they're dealing with, then I think there's a pattern there. And I think residential school impacts are intergenerational, they get passed on from generation to generation. When these adults were abused as children and they grow up, if they don't get the right kind of support and treatment, they become abusive parents or abusive adults as well, so it's a vicious cycle," she said.
"We do have a lot of issues to address in the north, and I think the apology is a good apology but the work is going on and hopefully this will be an impetus to make it more comprehensive and maybe deal with the issues a bit more rapidly," she said, pointing out the low education outcomes, lack of mental health support, and crowded housing conditions in the north.
As a representative of Canada's Métis and a past student of a Métis residential school, Chartier shared the same concern of disregarding some residential school students in the settlement agreement.
"Thousands of Métis attended Indian residential schools, enduring forced separation from family, attacks on their culture and, in many instances, physical and sexual abuse," he stated.
"However, the vast majority of Métis survivors attended church-run, government-sanctioned boarding schools not ­ and I repeat ­ not included in the settlement agreement, and are receiving no compensation," he said. "Also excluded from the residential school agreement are thousands more Métis people who attended day schools run by religious orders." His response at the House of Commons also pointed to the need for recognition of Métis rights by government.
"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 feel that. I know that it is deep and it is real," he proclaimed. "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."
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, also delivered an apology of his own, a day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for comments he made during a radio interview with CFRA News Talk Radio on June 11, stating Aboriginal people need to learn the value of hard work more than they need compensation for abuse suffered in residential schools.
"Now along with this apology comes another $4 billion in compensation for those who partook in the residential school over those years," said Poilievre. "Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask: 'Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?' My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self-reliance. That's the solution in the long run ­ more money won't solve it," he said referring to compensation payments for past students of residential schools.
Poilievre referred to the $1.9 billion Common Experience Agreement, in which anyone who attended an Indian residential school is entitled to $10,000 plus another $3,000 for every year they attended. Under the settlement deal, additional compensation is given to those who suffered severe forms of abuse with payments determined by a 1 to 121 plus point system. The points measure child abuses ranging from humiliation, threats, hitting, slapping, beatings, whippings, burnings, starvation, use of religious doctrine to facilitate abuse, exposure, sexual molestation, witnessing abusive acts, and forced intercourse. The points are than calculated to determine varying payments that fall from $5000 to $275,000.
In Poilievre's interview, he went on to comment about funding First Nations bands receive as part of treaty agreements. "We spend 10 billion dollars ­ 10 billion dollars ­ in annual spending this year alone now, that is an exceptional amount of money, and that is on top of all the resource revenue that goes to reserves that sit on petroleum products or sit on uranium mines, other things where companies have to pay them royalties.

And that's on top of all that money that they earn on their own reserves. That is an incredible amount of money," he stated. He apologized the next day in the House of Commons, and Harper followed by saying he is confident in the MP's support of Aboriginal rights issues.
Leona Makokis is a past student of residential school and the President of Blue Quills College in Alberta, which is housed in a former residential school. She watched Harper's apology on CBC and said she felt dismayed with these kinds of misunderstandings still are prevalent in Canadian society.
"For me one of the most crucial part of this is that Canadians need to know the true history," she said. "Canadians are not aware of it. And so I saw the blogs coming in and I was really disappointed to see that there's such ignorance about us."
"Jim Miller, that historian, I commend him for filling in those areas that he caught right away what was being said, he had a good response in terms of knowing the history and bringing that forth. Now if it had been just the announcer, he represented the true absence of knowledge by Canadians. The comments he was making really showed that really ­ when I think of it ­ that's the Canadian public," Makokis said, adding that under-funding and misunderstanding are major setbacks in Aboriginal people moving forward.
"People will keep saying that we get everything for free, well you look at other people are getting, the housing, the infrastructure, you look at stuff that other people take so much for granted. You look at the universities that are being built and you look at what we're not even funded for. We got six First Nations colleges in Alberta, not one of us is funded for a building infrastructure and we're housed in former residential schools," she said.
"There needs to be action, needs to be follow up. And the whole capacity building in our communities, takes money, there's waiting lines of students wanting to go to post-secondary but there's no funding. I hope I'm not sounding like I'm whining but I really feel that has to go out in terms of people saying 'aw, those people again, wanting more money, we're paying more taxes,' the whole area of complaints, when they're getting the resources from our lands. Reaping the profits, it's just not a just society. In terms of the definition of equality, I don't want to be equal. I want to be who I am, it seems like being equal means that we have to be like them, but I don't want to be, I am a Cree woman and I want to maintain that. We do have something to offer. And I don't think that's recognized yet."
Aside from watching the apology on a live televised broadcast, many people traveled to Ottawa and listened from various areas of the government building as Harper spoke.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation(NAN) Grand Chief, Stan Beardy was at the House of Commons for the apology and said the acknowledgement of injustice means that the healing process for First Nations people across the country can finally begin.
"Thousands of innocent lives were shattered by the residential school system, not only NAN members but First Nations across the province and country," said Beardy.
"This apology does not erase the pain endured by survivors nor does it fix the broken families, nations or promises that were a result of the residential school system but it is an important first step towards reconciliation between the Government of Canada and First Nations."
Meanwhile, Grand Chief Randall Phillips of Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians in Ontario said there is much work ahead to deal with the legacy.
"The current policies regarding child welfare and protection issues coupled with the socio-economic situation are still designed to punish people for living in poverty by removing the children from their families, their culture and their communities. There are far too many children and families in the system and we need to address this now," he expressed.
The apology is met with settlement payments to survivors and a five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) process that will gather stories from former students. These are all part of a compensation package that's expected to reach $4 billion in settlements and healing programs to help generations of Aboriginal people recover from the continued effects of residential schools. Is this enough to help survivors recover from what they experienced in residential schools? As a survivor, write in to Windspeaker and tell your story about your experience at a residential school or voice your opinion on what needs to be done to begin the healing process.