An apology is
not the answer
The government of Canada recently apologized to various native groups for the residential school system.
While on the surface an apology is a good thing, there are still many outstanding problems resulting from the system that cannot be addressed simply by offering a mere apology.
Residential schools were institutions sanctioned by the federal government and operated by various churches. Native children were forcibly taken from their families, homes and communities to live in these schools for most of the year.
Boys and girls were separated (meaning families were torn apart even at the schools); children had their hair cut short (which is significant because for some, hair was a symbol of their connection to Mother Earth and related to native spirituality); they were punished for speaking their native language (sometimes very severely) with only English allowed; the children were not allowed to practise their spirituality and were in fact punished for it and told that their religion was “of the devil.”
Attendance in the church was mandatory; native foods were not served and there was constant hunger; and in a lot of cases there was physical and sexual abuse with some very severe cases occurring.
Some children even died in these schools without their bodies ever being returned or an explanation given to their parents as to why their sons or daughters never came back home.
Along with all this, the fact that children were not raised in loving homes with their families had far-reaching effects that no one considered.
The children grew up without learning the skills of parenting but learned institutional behaviours instead. These new ‘skills’ have now been handed down through the generations and are a source of many problems in Native communities today.
For an apology to be real and meaningful to the people who are affected, it has to be a considered action — it has to come only after a period of real reflection of what was done and what can be done to resolve issues arriving from the wrong actions.
Simply saying, ‘Oh gee, we’re sorry about that’ doesn’t mean anything and, in fact, makes things worse.
An apology also denotes that something was done unintentionally — residential schools were intentional.
They were used as part of the Canada’s government policy to rid itself of ‘Indians’ by assimilation. It used the churches’ desire to reform/civilize the ‘heathens’ and bring them to ‘God’ to try and abolish a culture and group of people.
Previously, the government issued a ‘statement of reconciliation’ in which it said, about residential schools, “We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of aboriginal people and nations.”
What the government did not mention in this statement was that this was the original intent of residential schools — to assimilate the Indian people into the dominant white society and erode the political, economic and social systems of nations.
This statement was made in January 1998. What has the government done since then to make reparations or atone for this erosion?
What has been done to alleviate the multi-generational suffering that has been caused by the government’s actions?
What has been done to assist First Nation communities to deal with the many effects that are still being felt today from the schools? What has been done to ensure that First Nation people are equal members of society?
What has been done to ensure that reserves and Native communities don’t resemble third world countries — that people have safe drinking water, educational systems that are equal to non-reserve educational systems?
What has the government done to ensure that the First Nations are able to return to governing themselves instead of relying on an archaic piece of legislation such as the Indian Act?
The government recently went through a class action suit brought about by some former residents of residential schools and made payments to (some) of the people who were directly harmed by their actions. But they have not addressed the real problems caused by people having to attend residential schools nor have they looked at or really accepted their part in it.
These payments are not restoring or fixing anything; money can’t return a person’s childhood.
It can’t teach a person how to be a parent, a brother or a sister. It can’t return all those lost years of childhood; it can’t return a person’s language, culture, way of life, heritage, or dignity. It can’t give a person a chance to reclaim any of what they lost.
By making these payments, it gives the Canadian government a chance to say, ‘See, we did the right thing by the Indians; we have paid our debt and now everything is OK.’
In fact, this process opened a lot of wounds for many people and without the resources in place in the communities to handle the fall out many people have died since the payments started.
Although I never personally attended a residential school, my family has been affected by the legacy because my father was forced to attend.
I think about everything that was taken from people from early childhood on and how this has shaped them for the rest of their lives — and how this has shaped the lives of their children, and grandchildren, etc., even though they themselves never attended a residential school.
People were shamed from an early age for the colour of their skin — how do you heal from that? Is it possible to heal from that?
In order for an apology to mean anything, the government must first of all wait for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete its work and implement the recommendations of the Commission.
The government must also:
1) Truly acknowledge its role in causing harm to First Nation society;
2) Make reparations in whatever way the First Nation communities feel is best to facilitate the healing of their members;
3) Fully disclose to the general public what happened with residential schools and teach the history in the mainstream educational curriculum so all Canadians have a true understanding;
4) Abolish the Indian Act; and
5) Recognize First Nations sovereignty over their traditional lands and make all efforts to allow all First Nation to return to self-government.
In addition, the Canadian media and history books need to be reviewed — they played a role in shaping Canadians’ viewpoints of First Nations and contributed to the racism that is still very prominent in Canada today.
One needs only to read the general comments on the CBC website to see how people think of First Nations today.
Despite the attempts by the churches and governments to assimilate the Indian peoples into the dominant ‘white’ society and erode the political, economic and social systems of nations, this has not occurred.
First Nations remain strong in their beliefs, cultures and values. As well, First Nations in Canada are continuing to fight for rights — the right to self-government to shape their own futures on their traditional lands, the right to continue to practise their spirituality, the right to be treated as separate and distinct nations within Canada.