navigation main:

a present haunted by this tragic and painful heritage

Source: Hansard June 12, 2008

Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools

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

Mr. Speaker, today, Canada comes face to face with some of the darkest chapters of its history.

Forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples was carried out through the residential schools system, a system, sadly, older than Confederation itself: schools aimed at “killing the Indian in the child” and eradicating aboriginal identity; schools built on the removal of children from their families and communities; schools designed to rip out of children their aboriginal identity, culture, beliefs and language.

[Translation]

It was a dehumanizing system that resulted in the worst kinds of abuse.

[English]

Government policy destroyed the fabric of family in first nations, Métis and Inuit communities. Parents and children were made to feel worthless. Parents and grandparents were given no choice. Their children were stolen from them.

[Translation]

And only today are we starting to measure the devastating costs of these terrible policies.

[English]

Today we live in a reality created by the residential schools system, a present that is haunted by this tragic and painful heritage from those first nations, Métis and Inuit children, from their families and their communities, a dark and painful heritage that all Canadians must accept as a part of our history.

For too long, Canadian governments chose denial over truth, and when confronted with the weight of truth, chose silence. For too long, Canadian governments refused to acknowledge their direct role in creating the residential schools system and perpetrating their dark and insidious goal of wiping out aboriginal identity and culture. 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.

Let me quote the damning verdict of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

With very few exceptions, neither senior departmental officials nor churchmen nor members of Parliament raised their voices against the assumptions that underlay the [residential schools] system or its abusive character. And, of course, the memory did not and has not faded. It has persisted, festered and become a sorrowful monument –

[Translation]

Today, we lay the first stone in building a new monument, a monument dedicated to truth, reconciliation and a better future.

[English]

Today, we representatives of the Canadian people apologize to those who survived residential schools and to those who died as a result of the laws enacted by previous governments and parliaments. By speaking directly to survivors and victims today on the floor of the House of Commons, we apologize to those who died waiting for these words to be spoken and these wrongs acknowledged.

Successive Canadian governments and various churches were complicit in the mental, physical and sexual abuse of thousands of aboriginal children through the residential schools system. As the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, a party that was in government for more than 70 years in the 20th century, I acknowledge our role and our shared responsibility in this tragedy. I am deeply sorry. I apologize.

[Translation]

I am sorry that Canada attempted to eradicate your identity and culture by taking you away from your families when you were children and by building a system to punish you for who you were.

To first nations, Inuit and Métis, mothers and fathers, I am so very sorry we took away your children. I am sorry we did not value you as parents. I am sorry we did not trust and respect you.

[English]

Today’s apology is about a past that should have been completely different. But it must be also about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental changes.

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.

It is about being inspired by the determination of survivors like National Chief Phil Fontaine and Billy Blackwater who had the courage to speak out and pursue justice. It is about building on the work of former first nations member of Parliament Gary Merasty, whose motion calling on the government to apologize to survivors of residential schools was unanimously adopted by members of Parliament on May 1, 2007.

[Translation]

If we are to succeed, we need to be firmly committed to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Justice Harry LaForme, which is responsible for investigating all aspects of the residential school system in Canada.

This means that we will have to listen to testimony from victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. This means that we will have to understand why and how Canada let residential schools cause deaths and spread illness, tuberculosis and pneumonia. This also means that we will have to get to the bottom of what really happened to the many children who disappeared into unmarked graves.

This means giving a voice to those who were silenced by Canada. This means giving a name to those whose identities were erased. This means showing our respect to those we humiliated. This means understanding the pain of the parents and families who were abandoned and, as a result of our actions, destroyed forever.

We must listen carefully to the victims who testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and we must be prepared to hear the commission recount a very shameful collective past. We must together, as a nation, face the truth to ensure that never again do we have to apologize to another generation, and that never again is such a tragedy allowed to happen.

[English]

I say this as I think of the survivors I met last night. One woman remembers clearly her early days growing up in an isolated community with her family. At age seven, her father took her by canoe to a residential school. She has great memories of life with her parents and siblings up to that day. Yet, she has no memory of the years she spent at the residential school. She survived by erasing all memory of the harsh treatment she endured.

Another survivor, Marion Ironquill-Meadmore, talked about the 10 years she spent in a church-run institution. The first lesson she was taught was that her parents were not worthy. After 10 years, she left the school feeling lost in both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds, ill-equipped to return to the traditional lifestyle of her community, and yet never feeling at home elsewhere.

Reconciliation will require a commitment from Canadian society for action. This means ensuring that all aboriginal Canadians, first nations, Inuit and Métis alike, share in the bounty and opportunity of this country. This means ensuring that we hear the voices of first nations, Métis and Inuit people in their own languages, and that these aboriginal voices and languages continue to enrich the cultural heritage of the world.

We cannot be intimidated by the scale of the challenge or discouraged by the failures of the past. We owe it to all our children to pass along an even better country than we inherited from our parents and we will not do so as long as aboriginal peoples continue to be left behind.

Four years after the conclusion of the five year Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. On that anniversary, it is my sincere hope that aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in this country will fulfill the dream voiced in the very building 60 years ago by decorated aboriginal veteran Thomas Prince, a dream of first nations, Inuit and Métis people and non-aboriginal Canadians forging a new and lasting relationship. He said in his own words, “so that they can trust each other and...can walk side by side and face this world having faith and confidence in one another”.

Until that day, we humbly offer our apology as the first step on the path to reconciliation and healing.

Merci. Thank you. Meegwetch. Ekosi. Nakurmiik.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of Canada’s opposition parties apologized to former students of Indian residential schools. Breaking from “usual practices” in the House of Commons, all parties unanimously consented to having representatives of the communities affected by the government’s residential school policy make statements in response to the ministerial statement of apology to former students of Indian residential schools.

The first residential schools were opened when Canada was still a colony in the 19th century. Once the country gained independence, these schools were under the control of the Department of Indian Affairs. Native children had to attend. The last school closed in 1996 – the same year that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued its final, damning, report.

The text is from Hansard.

statements in the House of Commons | June 11, 2008

posted on section15.ca

external link in this feature

39th Parliament, 2nd Session, edited Hansard, number 110 | June 11, 2008

announcement

  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more