Historic apology to residential schools students seen as a beginning

"Finally we have heard Canada say it is sorry," said Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine.
"Finally we have heard Canada say it is sorry," said Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine.
Published June 11, 2008


Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, today said he was moved by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to victims of residential schools and is optimistic that the historic apology – made on behalf of the Canadian government – will be followed by action.

“I was equally grateful for the apologies – and that’s what they were -offered on behalf of the other political parties,” he said in an interview with the Anglican Journal on Parliament Hill after Mr. Harper delivered the apology in the House of Commons June 11, followed by apologies from the other party leaders. “Iwas very encouraged by their determination to make sure that this apology is seen as a beginning, and that it will be accompanied by actions that will significantly improve the quality of life for First Nations people in this land,” the primate said.

The government’s apology was directed at the generations of victims of what Mr. Harper called “a sad chapter in our history” and asked for forgiveness for the students’ suffering and for the damaging impact the schools had on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.

Aboriginal leaders and abuse victims, among them Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, were in the chamber as Mr. Harper delivered the apology.

“Today, we recognize this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country,” said Mr. Harper. “The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

“The Government of Canada now recognizes it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes … to separate children from rich and vibrant traditions,” he said. “We apologize for having done this.”

Mr. Harper also noted that 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.”

Several First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders spoke in the chamber in response to the government’s apology with Mr. Fontaine – wearing a traditional aboriginal headdress – calling it “the achievement of the impossible.” He added: “Finally we have heard Canada say it is sorry.”

Clement Chartier, Métis National Council President thanked the government for the apology and said, “It has taken courage and conviction on the parts of many, many people to confront this dark period in Canada’s history.”

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said the apology “is about a past that should have been completely different.” But, he added, “it must be also about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental changes.”

Native groups and leaders of the four churches that operated the residential schools on behalf of the federal government -Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian – had urged the government to consult with First Nations leaders in the drafting of the apology.

The government rejected the idea but Archbishop Hiltz said the groups seemed satisfied that the apology had the necessary ingredients. These included “acknowledgement of a policy of assimilation that was flawed and wrong in its inception, words of contrition on the part of the government for removing children from their families, (and) words of contrition for abuse which many of them suffered in the school,” he said.

Bishop Mark MacDonald, the national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he was pleased with the government’s apology. “I’m going to be processing it for a long time,” he told the Journal. “It was an extraordinary event and I was very happy with what I heard and moved by what I heard and I’m filled with all kinds of emotions. So it will take me a while to process it. But I thought it was an extraordinary day and one of the best days of my life.”

BishopMacDonald and Archbishop Hiltz, along with other church leaders and scores of FirstNations people watched the proceedings in the House of Commons on screens set up in two large meetings rooms nearby. Also in attendance were Archdeacon Sidney Black and the Rev. Gloria Moses, co-chairs of the Anglican Council ofIndigenous Peoples.

More than 1,000 others watched from outside the House ofCommons where a big screen television was set up. About 30 events markingthe historic formal apology were organized in cities and communities acrossCanada.The Anglican Church of Canada urged parishes to ring their church bells at 3 p.m., the time Mr. Harper was scheduled to deliver the apology.

After the apology was delivered, Mr. Harper and Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl led the procession from the House to one of the rooms for a smudging ceremony, the presentation of tobacco and tea to aboriginal elders, and the signing of the Statement of Apology.

Eleven of the special guests, including Mr. Fontaine and 104-year-old Margeurite Wabano, the oldest residential school survivor, were presented with a framed Statement of Apology from Mr. Harper, and congratulations and hugs from Governor General Michaëlle Jean.

The government’s apology to residential school students comes 15 years after the Anglican Church of Canada, through former primate Archbishop MichaelPeers, issued an apology for its involvement in the schools. The church ran about 30 of the schools between 1820 and 1969,About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from theircommunities over most of the last century and forced to attend state-funded but church-run boarding schools aimed at assimilating them.



Art Babych is the editor of Crosstalk, the monthly newspaper of the diocese of Ottawa.


  • Art Babych

    Art is the former editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa.

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