As MPs excitedly clapped, smiled and congratulated themselves following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s residential school apology Wednesday, a crowd of Yukon survivors remained in solemn silence.
“It’s an indication what people think of the apology,” a woman finally muttered from the seats at the Council of Yukon First Nations, a former residential school before its office conversion.
Ottawa’s official apology for the emotional, physical, sexual abuse and generations of hurt suffered by native residential school survivors was broadcast live across Canada.
CYFN staff set up an internet broadcast of Harper’s speech.
The video failed, showing only freeze frames of scenes from the House of Commons. But the words were clear.
The government of Canada is sorry.
The apology released emotions in the crowd that spilled onto the floor when CYFN grand chief Andy Carvill invited survivors and others to share their stories.
“For me, there’s no compensation that’ll make up for what I went through,” said William Carlick, speaking in the residential school he once attended.
But he accepts Ottawa’s apology.
Now it’s the individual’s turn to make something of it, he said.
“It’s one thing to have someone apologize, but it’s another to have each person accept it,” said Carlick, standing beside his daughter.
“No one’s going to make the decision to heal for you, you have to do that on your own.”
The apology was a bitter-sweet moment that’s been a long time coming, said Carvill.
“Hopefully some of the survivors can put those dark years behind them and we can move on together,” he said.
“(But) they still have policies in place that continue to take our children away and put them into the system we call welfare.”
Viola Papequash went to the same residential school her mother and grandmother attended.
As a social worker, she’s rebuilding her life and helping others do the same.
Papequash’s grandmother froze to death because of excessive drinking. Alcohol also killed her mother.
All 12 of her mother’s children were adopted, and Papequash hasn’t seen them for 35 years.
“There are many of us out there hurting and this apology — I think of my grandmother — and there’s many generations affected,” said Papequash.
“I don’t know about the apology because I see so much hate and anger in our community.”
An elderly residential school survivor held up by two younger women spoke quietly but effectively.
Angry at her parents for letting people take her away, it took years before she was able to forgive, she said.
“My sister told me, ‘You think you’re the only one who suffered? The night you left we all laid in one bed crying for you,’” said the woman.
Nearly 150,000 natives were taken as children by the government and church authorities to Canada’s 130 residential schools from the 19th century to as late as 1996.
About 86,000 survive today and are eligible for part of Ottawa’s $2 billion compensation package.
People have to continue searching for First Nation language and culture, said Kwanlin Dun First Nation Chief Mike Smith, who accepted Ottawa’s apology.
“We have to forgive and let go,” said Smith. “We have to rebuild our nation for our children.”
MPs continued to shake hands and clap in freeze-framed moments on the television screens as survivors stood to tell their stories.
Carvill and others noted politicians took pains to speak in French, recognizing the language rights of a minority, while First Nation languages are nearly extinct.
Language isn’t all that was forgotten.
Some people were never recognized for their suffering, said Edith Baker.
While children were hauled off to residential schools, their parents were left to mourn, she said.
“To apologize to people and not those who suffered through the same experience is tough for me to accept,” she said.
Summers in her village were filled with laughter and the games of children home for a holiday from residential school.
The days were joyful, said Baker.
Then a silence would cover homes as the day approached when children were taken back.
And drinking would take over the lives of parents grieving for their stolen children.
“They don’t realize what they did to our parents,” said Baker, choking back tears as two friends held her.
Parents suffered, and to this day so do the children of survivors.
Politicians, too, recognized the lasting effects of residential schools on First Nations family and culture.
The many health and social problems plaguing First Nation communities is a legacy of the residential schools, said Harper.
“The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long,” he said.
“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 prevail again.”
Ed Schultz, former CYFN grand chief, wound up on welfare as a child because of what the residential school experience did to his parents.
He suffered for a long time, but never went to a residential school.
That makes Ottawa’s apology awkward for him, and other children of survivors.
“It’s a confusing moment because I didn’t go, but anyone who knows me knows I was messed up for a long time,” said Schultz.
The government created a legacy of First Nation parents unable to raise a family, he added.
“They’re still taking away our children,” said Schultz.
“The spiral continues today.”
Larry Smarch organized the CYFN gathering, bringing together nearly 100 survivors, their children, First Nations leaders and politicians.
Learning to forgive is hard, but necessary to continue the healing journey, said Smarch, a residential school survivor.
“They gave me a number: 152 — they didn’t give me a name,” he said.
“My people were strong before the white man came. We had our own culture, our own religion, our own politics.”
Reflecting sentiments shared by survivors at CYFN, Harper said the apology removes a roadblock to healing.
“The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation,” said Harper.
“Therefore, on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system.”
Wednesday marks the day Canada takes responsibility for the country’s shameful past, said NDP leader Jack Layton.
But it’s only one step towards mending First Nations society.
“Even as we speak here today, thousands of aboriginal children are without proper schools or clean water, adequate food, their own bed, good health care, safety, comfort, land and rights,” said Layton in Parliament Wednesday.
“Let us reverse the horrific and shameful statistics afflicting aboriginal populations, now: the high rates of poverty, suicide, the poor or having no education, overcrowding, crumbling housing, and unsafe drinking water.”
The Yukon needs a culturally relevant addictions treatment centre for psychological, physical and spiritual healing, said Wayne Jim, a former Yukon Government Services minister in Pat Duncan’s government.
“Let’s get a centre before the rest of our people die on the streets,” he said.
“The apology isn’t enough because we still have children suffering, and mothers and fathers suffering.”
The apology marks a new day heralding a better future, said Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell from Ottawa.
“Let’s move forward together from this historic day,” he said.
Premier Dennis Fentie sat in the back row of the assembled seats listening from beginning to end.
He won’t pass judgment on Ottawa’s apology.
“We’re all sorry for what transpired,” he said at day’s end.
“Our job is to build for the future so this doesn’t happen again.
“The stories we heard here today reaffirm that.”