Why the apology matters to us all

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Why the apology matters to us all
June 11, 2008

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will rise this afternoon in the House of Commons to apologize on behalf of Canadians for one of the darkest chapters in our history – the forcible removal of generations of aboriginal children from their families to residential schools, which systematically sought to “kill the Indian in the child.”

For many of the 90,000 living former students who are struggling to come to terms with painful memories of forced assimilation and, in some cases, horrific abuse, a sincere and unconditional apology is a necessary step toward healing the deep wounds they still carry.

But this is also an opportunity for all Canadians to face up to this disastrous policy and its devastating consequences. For too long, residential schools have widely been seen as an unfortunate historical footnote. Harper’s apology ought to compel Canadians to look critically and unflinchingly at their past and help set the relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals on a better path.

It would be difficult to underestimate the damage done to the estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who attended church-run residential schools from the 19th century until the final decades of the 20th century. They were separated from their families for long stretches, punished for speaking their own languages, and deprived of their cultural traditions. Some suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those who sought to “civilize” them. Others died from disease and neglect before they could return home.

This unspeakable legacy is still playing out in aboriginal communities across the country in the form of suicide, substance abuse, family breakdown and despair. That’s why aboriginals have long sought redress for the enormous wrongs done to them, including an unequivocal and fulsome apology.

“This is so very important. This is about reconciliation and … about Canada coming to terms with its past,” Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a former residential school student himself, told the Star yesterday.

Fontaine hopes today’s apology “will help shape Canada for the future.” Under a 2006 settlement among the federal government, the churches and former students, compensation has been made available, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched to document the history and effects of residential schools.

With this apology, Harper can seize the opportunity to move the reconciliation process an important step further.”

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