Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Brampton—Springdale.
I rise to speak on the motion presented by my colleague, the hon. member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, which indeed calls on the House to apologize to the survivors of the Indian residential schools.
I want to advise the House that yesterday I attended the residential schools survivors conference and workshop in Winnipeg. Over 1,500 survivors from across the country gathered together to prepare to move forward. Aboriginal leaders from across the country all called for an apology for the residential schools legacy.
One of the speakers characterized the need for an apology in the following context. He said his perception of it is that aboriginal peoples in this country are still in bondage and an apology is necessary for the final redress from this bondage. He spoke of the need for more than a physical release, but the need for a spiritual release and with a spiritual release an apology is needed in order to forgive. I bring this to the attention of the House, so that members have some understanding of what is happening.
The legacy of the residential schools, we all know, is a shameful part of this country's history. Over the years aboriginal children in the tens of thousands endured years of abuse and neglect. These children were physically, sexually and psychologically brutalized. The Canadian government aimed to eliminate aboriginal peoples' cultures and language. The government aimed to assimilate first nations, Inuit and Métis children.
Apologizing to the survivors of these residential schools is simply the right thing to do. What we have heard here today is that members opposite will vote for today's motion, and for that I am thankful and commend them, but that no apology will be forthcoming until the executive branch determines in five years that this can be done.
This meanspirited Conservative government's refusal to apologize now to the victims of the tragedy is simply incomprehensible. It is part of a pattern the government has established as it continues to show its lack of concern and, I would say, lack of compassion toward aboriginal issues. This pattern started with the cancellation of the Kelowna accord.
We have heard the minister give two main messages in regard to the residential schools legacy and why it cannot be honoured. First, he says that there cannot be an apology because there was no agreement to apologize by the Government of Canada and, second, he cannot apologize because the purpose of the schools was to provide an education to aboriginal children. Given that, there is no need to apologize because it was simply education.
I have a lot of difficulty with that. In reference to the first issue, let me say to the minister that at one level he claims that he negotiated the agreement. What he actually did was conclude the final agreement that was agreed to by the previous government in a residential schools political agreement signed on May 30, 2005.
What he ratified was a court determined settlement, which cannot dictate an apology, but the residential schools political agreement, and I am going to ask for it to be tabled in the House so that all members have it, says clearly:
Whereas the Government of Canada is committed to a comprehensive approach that will bring together the interested parties and achieve a fair and just resolution of the Indian Residential Schools legacy, it also recognizes that there is a need for an apology that will provide a broader recognition of the Indian Residential Schools legacy and its effect upon First Nation communities;--
The minister cannot play with semantics both ways. He cannot say that he negotiated an agreement and there was nothing in it, when in fact he really did not negotiate the agreement. It was done by the previous government and it is clearly stated for all to see.
The minister has to take responsibility. It is not a political party that negotiates with the Assembly of First Nations. It is the Government of Canada. It states quite clearly here, and as I say, I will table this document for members who have not had an opportunity to look at it before.
We have heard the minister speak at length saying that an apology is not necessary because the schools were “set up to provide an education to aboriginal children”.
Let me give the House some background on what was said in a sessional report in 1897 by the Indian commissioner who spoke about the residential schools system. He said:
This branch of the Indian service has ever been recognized as one of the most, if not perhaps the most, important feature of the extensive system which is operating towards the civilization of our native races, having its beginning in small things [...] until today the Dominion has had at its command a system which provides for its Indian wards a practical course of industrial training, fitting for useful citizenship the youth of a people who one generation past were practically unrestrained savages.
A second Indian commissioner said, in the year 1896:
The year just passed has shown the department that the sun dance has become an Indian ceremony almost, if not quite, of the past. For a long time the department's policy has been in the direction of suppressing it by moral suasion, and step by step, it has been robbed of its most revolting ceremonies--
He went on to say:
The policy of the department, as to the retention of pupils, has been that boys should remain at the industrial schools until...their characters shall have been sufficiently formed as to ensure as much as possible against their returning to the uncivilized mode of life.
The Indian affairs minister has said an apology is not necessary because of education. I am not sure that many people today would view that as the purpose of education. He said that the implementation of the re-announced $2.2 billion residential schools agreement is fair, generous and compassionate. He is right. The minister is commendable. The agreement is commendable, but without a national apology, the compassion is missing and it fails to put an end to this terrible chapter in Canadian history.
The previous Liberal government committed to apologizing to the survivors, as I indicated, in this agreement in principle, in the public statements made by the minister, the deputy prime minister at the time, and in The Globe and Mail at the time. An apology is a simple, important step toward ending this sad legacy in our country's history. It would cost nothing and it goes a long, long way to help the survivors in their healing process.
I guess one could ask why the government will not stand up and apologize right now. The churches involved in the tragedy have apologized. They have realized the wrongs they have committed. The United Church, as we have heard, has found it “completely unacceptable” that the government did not include a separation agreement. A Roman Catholic administrator, along with a bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario, found it “totally incomprehensible” that the government would not offer an apology. The Anglican Church of Canada has also come out to express its “disappointment and sadness” that the government will not apologize for the legacy of residential schools.
I believe that Canadians across the country want their government to apologize. It is through their government that the people give voice to this. The churches are sorry, but for some reason that none of us can understand the government is not willing to give a formal apology.
In recent reports, we have seen archival records that show that as many as half of the children who had attended early years of residential schools died of tuberculosis.
The government had been warned that the inhumane living conditions these children had to endure helped lead to the spread of the disease which caused the death of these children. Despite the evidence of the government's knowledge of this injustice, this current government refuses to apologize. Again I ask, what will it take to get this government to apologize to the legacy of residential schools?
We know that the survivors are dying at a rate of as many as five a day it has been estimated. How much longer will it take for this meanspirited government to apologize? The minister wants to wait for the conclusion of the truth and reconciliation commission before determining whether an apology is necessary. I submit we all know that this apology is necessary. Do not use smoke and mirrors to avoid it.