Sorry is Right: The True Meaning of Canada’s Residential School Apology
Two years ago almost to the day, much was made of the Canadian government’s Statement of Apology to survivors of the country’s ‘Indian’ residential schools, where the only thing Indian about these grievous institutions were the children forced into them.
We know the intended mission behind the schools: to systematically destroy the Indian in the child. Their architects hoped to do this, first, by removing Aboriginal children from everyone and everything that they knew and loved. Thus isolated, we were more readily subjected to the constant efforts aimed at eviscerating and eliminating our languages, our lifeways, our spiritual practices and our cultural institutions.
It is an internationally-recognized act of genocide to forcibly transfer children of one group to another group. But again, that was only the first step. Linguistic and cultural erasure were the next calculated acts. Removed as they were en masse from their parents’ embrace, their community’s care and the rootedness of their people’s culture, it takes no great feat of imagination to see that this great physical and psychic dislocation had caused serious mental harm, which, when waged against members of a specific group, constitutes another criminal act of genocide under international law.
But we know all this, not least because the Harper government apologized for it back in 2008:
[T]he Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this. 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. …
The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. 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. 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 the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.
Such contrition! Words that held enough truth inside them, you could not be faulted for wondering whether they could also contain the genuine seeds of “a new relationship” between Indigenous peoples and Canada: a “partnership” based on mutual respect, good faith and honour.
Swayed momentarily by words, you eventually face facts in the form of actions. In its March 2010 Speech from the Throne, the Harper government said that
A growing number of states have given qualified recognition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our Government will take steps to endorse this aspirational document in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws.
Last week (a scant 3 months after the Throne Speech), we found out what this government really thinks of the Declaration. It slipped out as part of a federal submission to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case regarding First Nations child welfare funding levels. The complaint alleges inequities in federal funding between First Nations child welfare agencies and the provincial agencies. (Take a wild guess who receives less, much less?)
The Winnipeg Free Press writes that the submission, provided by the attorney general of Canada, implies “the [D]eclaration is meaningless in Canada and shouldn’t be used to determine the human rights challenge.”
To quote the submission itself:
In its explanation of vote at the [United Nations General Assembly] Canada stated that it had significant concerns with the wording of the text, and underlined that it is non-binding, has no legal effect in Canada and that its provisions do not represent customary international law. Canada’s position on the declaration has not changed.
Forgive me if I fail to see how, post-Apology, the colonial practices of old have been replaced in any significant way by something different or better in this country. On-reserve child welfare systems reportedly receiving 22% less funding than their off-reserve counterparts. A federal promise to consider abiding by “international standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples” amounting to little more than an effectively empty ‘endorsement.’
In the face of such conduct post-Apology by its leaders, one can see that Canada truly is one sorry country.