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Abuse at Native residential schools in Canada

Federal government apologies: 1998 & 2008

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1998-JAN-06: Ministry of Indian Affairs apology:

According to

"In a ceremony in Canada's Parliamentary building,...aboriginal leaders and government ministers pledged to work together to try to heal the damage done to aboriginal people and their culture. Indian leaders condemned the government for its 80-year program of taking children from native families and sending them to often abusive government-run schools."

"Minister of Indian Affairs Jane Stewart read a 'Statement of Reconciliation' that acknowledged the damage done to the native population...''Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of aboriginal culture and values,' she said. 'As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices. We must recognize the impact of these actions on the once self- sustaining nations that were disaggregated, disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional territory, by the relocation of aboriginal people, and by some provisions of the Indian Act.' 

With the apology came a $250 million fund (CDN; about $ 165 million in U.S. funds at the time) to redress some of the problems caused by the residential school policy." 1

2008-JUN-12: Formal apology by the federal government in the House of Commons:

The day before: The Globe and Mail newspaper commented that Member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, ON-Conservative) "spoke sarcastically of the size of the residential schools settlement on a CFRA talk radio program on the day before the official apology."  He is reported as having said:

"Along with this apology comes another four billion dollars in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools. Some of us are starting to ask, are we really getting value for all of this money and is money really going to solve the problem?" 2

Later that day, he Emailed a statement about his comment:

"I stated that aboriginals deserve protection under Canada's human-rights laws and that the record dollars that the government is spending on aboriginals should reach the people in need," the e-mailed statement said.

The formal apology: According to the Globe, Prime Minister Harper apologized in the House of Commons. This is the first time that a Prime Minister has given a formal apology: "For the sexual and physical abuse that occurred at the schools." He also expressed remorse "For the efforts to wipe out aboriginal languages and culture in the name of assimilation."

Harper referred to what is called the "generational effect of the schools" in which victims of the residential schools matured without proper parenting and later had difficulties parenting their own children.

Harper said:

"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. 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."

"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 aboriginal peoples for failing them so badly."

Response by leaders of opposition parties: Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said:

"Today's apology is about a past that should have been completely different. But it must be also about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental changes. ... It must be about moving forward together, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, into a future based on respect. It is about trying to find in each of us some of the immense courage that we see in the eyes of those who have survived."

NDP Leader Jack Layton denounced the residential schools program as "racist," and referred to the official apology:

"It is the moment where we as a Parliament and as a country assume the responsibility for one of the most shameful eras of our history. "It is the moment to finally say we are sorry and it is the moment where we start to begin a shared future on equal footing through mutual respect and truth."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe offered his own apology, but said that action is also needed:

"This is something that must be done concretely by the government €The federal government has not invested enough for young aboriginal people." 3

Opposition parties highlight the government's hypocrisy: Gilles Duceppe  and Jack Layton took this occasion to criticize the Conservative party for refusing to endorse the recently passed United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The previous Liberal federal government had played an leadership role in promoting and negotiating this Declaration. It took 22 years of intensive negotiation before it was finally passed. Recently, the Liberal party was thrown out of office due to gross financial corruption, and replaced by a Conservative government who reversed Canada's position on the declaration. When the vote was taken on 2007-SEP-13, 143 nations voted in favor of the declaration and four opposed it -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. At least three of the latter -- Australia, Canada and the U.S., have histories of repeated cultural and physical genocide against their own aboriginal people in past centuries. Eleven countries abstained. 4,5

Native leaders respond: In an unprecedented gesture by Parliament, five aboriginal leaders were invited to sit in a circle on the floor of the House of Commons, with six former residential school students who stood with them.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, who was a victim of residential school abuse said:

 "Brave survivors, through the telling of their painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy. The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us."

Mary Simon, a leader of the Inuit Tapiriit people spoke directly to the Prime Minister in the Inuktitut language saying:

"I wanted to demonstrate to you that our language and culture is still strong, ...There have been times in this long journey when I despaired that this would never happen. But after listening to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the political parties, I'm filled with hope and compassion for my fellow aboriginal Canadians."

According to the Globe article:

"On the grounds of Parliament Hill, the apology was well received by the couple of hundred people gathered to watch history on a giant video screen. Some were aboriginal, some were not. A few cried and hugged each other, but most watched in somber silence."

"Lance Migwans brought his four-year-old son, Braiden, to Ottawa from Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron to hear the apology."

" 'Everything that has happened still trickles down to our children, and will trickle down to his children and maybe his grandchildren,' he said brushing the top of Braiden's head."

"Julie Marion was also outside the Centre Block to hear the apology. Her mother and aunts all attended residential schools."

"Ms. Marion, garbed in a traditional buckskin dress, said there was no one willing to teach her the ways of her Mi'kmaq culture [in the Maritime provinces] and she was warned as a child not to tell people she was Indian. She was forced to learn the traditions herself as an adult."

" 'It has been a very long time that the elders have been waiting for this,' she said quietly. 'I am surprised that they are actually telling the truth about some of the things that have happened'." 2

If you know of any government apologies that we have missed, please let us know.

References used:

  1. Mark Bourrie, "Rights: Canada Apologizes For Abuse of Native Peoples," at:
  2. Bill Curry & Gloria Galloway, "We are sorry," Globe and Mail, 2008-JUN-12, at:
  3. "PM cites 'sad chapter' in apology for residential schools ," CBC News, 2008-JUN-11, at:
  4. "Jubilation as UN approves indigenous peoples declaration," Survival International, 2007-SEP-13, at:
  5. Text of the "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" is available at: This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:

Copyright © 2000 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-03
Latest update: 2014-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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