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It had to be done
Jun 12, 2008

Keep this in mind as Father’s Day approaches. At one time in Canadian history, fathers looked on helplessly as government officials came to take their children away. Fathers may have experienced the same fate as their young children, knowing the ordeal they faced would leave indelible psychological scars. 

They may have known that the odds of their children returning diminished with each day they were kept away. Fathers may have known that of 1,537 children taken from their homes, nearly 25 per cent were dead as reported in 1908.

Fathers may have known the education their children were reputedly receiving would change their children forever — invariably not for the better.  They may have known that children possibly faced years of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of those entrusted to “civilize” them. The fathers may have known that when the children did return their spirit might be shattered, nor remember the teachings learned before being forciby removed. In effect, children would be lost to the native culture and traditions that evolved over millennia.

This was the “sad chapter in our history” that evoked the apology for “the treatment of children in Indian residential schools” from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians.”

“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,” he said in a special session of the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon.

“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 of generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.”

Harper said the government recognizes its past residential school policy had created many of the social problems now facing aboriginal people.

The prime minister went on to say sorry for the government failure to oversee the institutions that caused aboriginal children to suffer and the failure of the government to protect the children from abuse.

Harper said the past policy of the federal government had been “profoundly negative” and left a “lasting damaging impact” upon the children forced to attend the 132 residential schools run by churches. While attending the residential schools, children were forced to speak only English at the expense of their native tongues to the detriment of the traditions and cultural institutions.

The policy to “kill the Indian in the child” was wrong — he stressed “horribly wrong” — and “there is no place in Canada for the attitudes that gave rise to the residential school system to ever prevail again,” he added. 

This policy was specifically implemented to “civilize” so-called “savages” and assimilate aboriginals into “mainstream” Canada. It now seems strange to Canadians that governments of yesteryear saw this policy as sensible and for the good of aboriginal children.

From the commentary heard from those attending the ceremony, it was a heartfelt apology (I only had the opportunity to hear the live CBC Radio broadcast due to a publication deadline), truthful and to the point. And, it was appropriate as a way to finally remove the stigma of being “victims” from aboriginal people and begin the process of their sharing an equal place in Canadian society. 

The strength of the apology will be tested. It is important that the spirit of the apology is accompanied by forgiveness from Canadian aboriginals. Aboriginals said they have been futilely waiting for decades for the apology — now that it has finally been made, it should serve the admirable purpose of creating a new chapter in Canadian history leading to  healing old wounds.

Grand Chief Phil Fontaine of the National Assembly of Chiefs said the apology from the prime minister in the House of Commons “signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada.”

Harper said the apology marked “a new beginning,” allowing all Canadians to “move forward together in partnership.”

The prime minister said, “A new relationship between aboriginal people and other Canadians ... based on knowledge of our shared history,” coupled with “respect for each other and a desire to move forward” will enforce “a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.” 

The strength of Canada today is its diversity which has created a unique nation that recognizes the need to be inclusive in order to accommodate the many who have established the Canadian identity. A symbol of the inclusiveness was the prime minister’s apology last Wednesday afternoon. 

It is a strong nation that learns from the mistakes of its past in order to face the future with confidence.

After the ceremony in the House of Commons, which included 11 native leaders and survivors of residential schools, one aboriginal leader commented that the apology was only as good as the commitment that follows.

Fortunately, the Canadian government has made a commitment that cannot be ignored by the aboriginal community. 

First, the government established the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreements; those who attended residential schools regardless of their experience are receiving payments of around $20,000 each based on the number of years of school attendance.

Next was the apology that the aboriginal community has been waiting decades to hear.

Now comes the Truth and Reconciliation  Commission, which will hear from survivors who suffered abuse while attending residential schools.

One wonders what sufferings the fathers from 1908 would have been able to tell the commission.