“Today I am well in my moccasins”

Today, the Government of Canada apologized for Canada’s most racist policy:  the Indian residential school system. The easiest way to explain the horrors of the system is to quote the Prime Minister’s speech:

Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools.

The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.

In the 1870’s, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools.

Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.

Indian residential school(source: Globe and Mail)

These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

Most schools were operated as ‘joint ventures’ with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches.

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.

Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools.

Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.

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.

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.

The legacy of Indian residential schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today. …

To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes, and we apologize for having done this.

We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.

We now recognize that, 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, and we apologize for having done this.

We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.

Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

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.

The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.

Prime Minister Harper’s speech was delivered in the House of Commons (the federal legislature), with the aboriginal peoples (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis) well represented. In fact, the speech was vetted by the Assembly of First Nations, to ensure that it was acceptable to the people who had suffered this grave harm.

The residential school system was instituted 150 years ago. Use of the system peaked in 1931. The last residential school was not closed until 1996.

Children who spoke their native languages were beaten, or otherwise punished, and forced to speak either English or French.

The 1907 Bryce Report, in a study of 15 schools with a total of 1,537 pupils, found that 7% were sick or in poor health, while 24% had died. Most of the deaths were attributable to tuberculosis (attributed to insufficient ventilation in student housing).

Parents were often not informed of the circumstances in which their children had died. Many of the children were buried in unmarked graves.

Approximately 150,000 children were removed from their parents’ homes and placed in residential schools. According to the Prime Minister’s speech, about 80,000 former students are still alive.

I watched the event at a government-sponsored meeting at the Holiday Inn Plaza la Chaudière in Gatineau. Our meeting was introduced by an elder — I regret that I didn’t take note of his name or of the First Nation he represented — who remarked, “Today I am well in my moccasins.”

Can a speech — just so many words — actually make things better?

By itself it won’t be enough. But several of the speakers returned to the idea that the apology marks a new beginning. By acknowledging the past, the Prime Minister has demarcated that era and closed that chapter in the nation’s history. Today becomes a pivot between past and future, precisely because a formal apology was offered.

Watching the speeches, I was struck by Prime Minister Harper’s inability to bring any emotion to the occasion. The Prime Minister is known for lacking a human touch. He said the right things, but regrettably failed to transcend his usual cold fish delivery.

Stéphane Dion, the (Liberal) leader of the opposition, can’t effectively deliver a speech in English. (His first language is French.) Only in Canada would a party elect a leader who so badly garbles the language spoken by the majority of the population! Even though Dion was speaking English, sometimes I literally couldn’t understand what he had just said.

On the other hand, Dion did manage to convey a sense of righteous indignation that the Prime Minister’s speech lacked. He also shared a few anecdotes from residential school survivors he had met — an obvious thing to do, but the Prime Minister hadn’t done it.

Gilles Duceppe, leader of the (separatist) Bloc Québécois, spoke entirely in French. That’s his usual m.o., but it struck me as exceptionally graceless on this occasion, given that many of the survivors of the residential school system do not speak French. Duceppe also played politics with the occasion, attacking the Government’s record at several points. (Adam Radwanski mocks Duceppe’s speech here.)

This left Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, to deliver the most effective speech of the day. (Though, as leader of the fourth party, his speech isn’t getting much attention from the media.)

Prime Minister Harper, during the introduction to his remarks, had acknowledged that Layton persistently advocated the apology.

Layton spoke with a gravity that suited the occasion perfectly. When he spoke of the “racist” legislation that introduced the residential school system, he got a “Whoop!” of approval from one of the people in attendance (presumably an aboriginal individual). He got a second “Whoop!” when he listed some of the ways in which First Nation, Inuit, and Métis individuals continue to lag behind the rest of the Canadian population, and declaimed that Canada must do better in future.

Layton was the only speaker who began to choke up during his speech; he had to pause to collect himself before continuing. (He had just told the story of a woman who was led to an unmarked grave, forty years after the death of her child. Until that moment, she didn’t know the burial place.)

Both Layton and Gilles Duceppe criticized the Harper Government for failing to sign the United Nations Draft Declaration on Indigenous Rights. I think it was the one political criticism that could appropriately be voiced on this occasion.

Leaders of five National Aboriginal Organizations also spoke in the House of Commons. Today was a particularly noteworthy achievement for Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Fontaine is a residential school survivor himself, and he has been forthright about the abuse he suffered there.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. juggling mother
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 03:45:22

    hmm, read this yesterday on the BBC. the bit I can’t get over is:

    “The last residential school was not closed until 1996.”

    Britain certainly has a lot to regret in it’s past, and even in it’s not too distant past, but I find it astounding tha Canada was still pursuing ANY kind of forcible assimilation policy in the 90’s. I remember the court battles and arguments we had in the 80’s to be allowed to keep my little brother *(fostered), who was mixed race (carribean & something unknown – even to his mother) because of the issue of his culture & heritage. We were one of many at that time – which shows that the English courts & legal system/government had recognised the concept of cultural heritage even for children who were “unable” to be brought up by their own family.

    I was opposed to us apologising for the slave trade. it was a different world, we should celebrate that we were the first country to ban it, and no-one who participated in it is still alive! who would be apologising to whom? But 1996! And prompted by a number of court cases I understand? Sheesh.

    *we kept him. He’d been with us since he was 6 mths old & the psych report came back that he was “comfortable with his race”. I ask you!


  2. Stephen
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 07:58:06

    I don’t know why one school remained open until 1996. Here’s a timeline from the Assembly of First Nations site:

    1948 – There were 72 residential schools with 9,368 students.

    1979 – There were 12 residential schools with 1,899 students.

    1980’s – Residential School students began disclosing sexual and other forms of abuse at residential schools.

    1996 – The last federally run residential school, the Gordon Residential School, closes in Saskatchewan.

    From which I conclude that most of the schools had already been closed by the end of the 70s, and the admissions of abuse didn’t come out until the 80s.

    But your point about an ongoing policy of assimilation seems reasonable enough. 1996! I have no explanation.


  3. Zayna
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 13:30:33

    1996 indeed! What’s worse is that it’s taken another 12 years just to get a formal apology from the gov’t.

    I agree that though an apology, however poorly delivered, is a start, it’s a far cry from justice for the people who suffered (and are still suffering no doubt) so greatly.

    You can never give a happy childhood back to a person once it’s been taken away.


  4. Trackback: Wasn’t Willing To Wait Around « Zayna’s Garden
  5. Random
    Jun 13, 2008 @ 05:12:21

    Fascinating story, and one that produced all sorts of, odd I suppose, feelings, because I ve got a family legacy of being on the receiving end of this sort of thing. It may or may not be a consolation to know that this is not limited to Canada.

    i normally describe myself here as British, but the truth of the matter is that Welsh is the more accurate discription (and Cymraeg is most accurate of all, but it’s usually pointless bothering with that one on English language blogs) – British in the original meaning of the word, as I like to tell people.

    Even as late as the early 19th Century over 90% of the population of Wales still spoke Welsh as a first language, as they had been since before the Romans came (we are the “first nation” of Britain, if you like), and the vast majority of them spoke nothing else. In the mid 19th century, “enlightened” people in England – doubtless of much the same sort that gave Canada residential schools – formed the opinion that this attachment to the Welsh language and culture was holding Wales back and entrenching poverty in the country, and something needed to be done about it.

    What they did was launch a full scale assault on the language and culture, especially in education. The language was denounced as backward, education was forcibly conducted in English, and children who spoke Welsh in school were beaten if caught – the infamous “Welsh Not” from this time was a plaque hung around the necks of children so caught to shame them in front of their peers (my father, who went to school in the 1930’s, tells that in his school the only way you could speak Welsh was by signing up for the Welsh language class – which was offered, and taught, as a foreign language, like French) . In the family huge social pressure was put on parents not to teach their children Welsh – my own grandparents were subject to this, they often spoke Welsh amongst themselves, but only spoke English in front of their children (this had the ironic effect that the first words of Welsh I learnt were swear words – when they stubbed a toe or something they would often forget their restraint and just let fly from the heart).

    As with the residential schools, this sort of persecution carrying on until shockingly recent times – in the 1950’s people could (and did) lose their homes for attempting to assert a right to communicate with their local government in Welsh, and in the 1960’s the London government saw nothing wrong about uprooting long standing Welsh speaking communities so that their valleys could be used as reservoirs to provide water so that people in Liverpool and Birmingham could wash their cars, with the same arguments about “primitive” communities being moved “for their own good” that the Victorians would have recognised.

    The reservoir programme produced a huge backlash though, up to and including a (usually incompetent) terrorist campaign at times, and things are better now. Wales is officially a bilingual country and it is compulsory for all children to be taught Welsh up until the age of 16 (with a sizeable minority receiving all their education in the language), and certain people like me who remember the past derive a certain vicious amusement from demanding that some petty bureaucrat produce the Welsh language version of official forms which are usually languishing at the back of some cupboard somewhere. however a country where 90% of the population spoke Welsh less than 200 years ago, with the vast majority of them monoglot, now has barely 20% of the population able to speak the language, with virtually no-one over 5 monoglot, and the future survival of the language is still by no means certain. Those enlightened Victorian gentlemen have come very close to success. “Genedl heb iaith, genedl heb galon” (a nation without a language is a nation without a heart) as we say in these parts.

    Apologies for this lengthy but somewhat obscure diversion into personal history, but I thought it was useful to show why I read this with a certain sense of fellow feeling for the First Nations elder you quote. And I have nothing but heartfelt congratulations for Prime minister Harper for having the courage and decency to make a formal apology. Such things should not be taken for granted – no London government has ever apologised for the Welsh Not or the reservoir programme after all (though they have for the Irish potato famine and the slave trade).


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