Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a long-anticipated apology Wednesday to tens of thousands of indigenous people who as children were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, where many were abused as part of official government policy to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Harper rose on the floor of a packed House of Commons and condemned the decades-long federal effort to wipe out aboriginal culture and assimilate native Canadians into European-dominated society. “The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,” Harper declared. “We are sorry.”
Investigations have established that thousands of Indian, Inuit and Metis children suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse in 132 boarding schools, most of them run by churches. The first opened in the late 1800s; the last – in Saskatchewan – continued operating until 1996.
“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” said Harper, facing indigenous leaders who sat in a circle in the House chamber, some in traditional dress. They variously listened silently or wept.
The apology received a generally positive reaction from indigenous leaders. Mary Simon, an Inuit leader, told the House: “Let us not be lulled into believing that when the sun rises tomorrow the pain and scars will be gone. They won’t. But a new day has dawned.”
The children’s stories have emerged bit by bit in recent decades, causing a national self-examination in a country whose citizens commonly view it with pride as a bastion of human rights.
In 2006 the government reached a $2 billion settlement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. Officials promised to pay 80,000 former residential school students $10,000 each for the first year they attended the schools and $3,000 for each subsequent year. The settlement included additional compensation for sexual and physical abuse and established a truth and reconciliation commission, the first of its kind in an industrialized country.
“The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities,” Harper said Wednesday.
“Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities,” Harper continued. “Languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools, and others never returned home.”
In recent years, former students have publicly recounted priests calling them into small rooms on the pretense that their parents had telephoned or were visiting, then abusing them. Others recounted being beaten with sticks for speaking their language and of forgetting their names because they had to answer to numbers.
Social workers say the effects can still be seen throughout Canada, in the arms of indigenous drug addicts who walk the streets of Vancouver; in the eyes of children in Labrador who sniff gasoline; in Saskatoon, where police drove intoxicated aboriginal men to the outskirts of town and let them freeze to death; in the Arctic, where the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.
“The memory of residential schools cuts like merciless knives at our souls,” Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents 633 indigenous communities across Canada, told the House Wednesday.
Fontaine, who wore a chief’s headdress of eagle feathers in the legislative chamber Wednesday, was the first aboriginal person to go public about abuse he experienced in a boarding school.
“These were lonely places,” he said in an interview. “We were separated from parents and families. I was one of the people who suffered physical abuse as well as sexual abuse. Sadly, I am not unique.”