That this House apologize to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools for the trauma they suffered as a result of policies intended to assimilate First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, causing the loss of aboriginal culture, heritage and language, while also leaving a sad legacy of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to stand today before this House to put forward a motion to offer an apology to the survivors of the Indian residential schools. It is my sincere hope that this motion asking Parliament to offer an apology to these survivors helps to facilitate the healing process, which has taken much too long to complete.
In her book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, Canadian author Erna Paris examines the manipulation of history, using examples from all over the world, and how countries shape historical memory in the aftermath of tragic events. She argues that decisions made by those in power cast long shadows into the future and that countries must confront these painful historical episodes in order to resolve them and heal as a nation.
The process of reconciliation and justice is necessary to heal, but it can be difficult for a country to confront these painful episodes of the past. It is often easier to purposely forget unpleasant or distressing things, sweep them under the rug, so to speak, and move on.
Whether the sorrow involves a group or a nation, a national collective amnesia is often seen as the simplest solution; however, this does not work. Time and again, history has provided us with examples of nations trying to reinvent themselves after such dark and tragic periods in their history.
Canada is learning this lesson firsthand. Injustices of the past do indeed cast long shadows and always have a way of humbling a nation.
I applaud and deeply respect the survivors who persisted in telling their stories and reminding Canada of its long shadow.
Many positive steps have been taken in recent years to help reconcile the Government of Canada's past actions regarding the residential schools. However, a full apology is still missing.
A critical aspect of facilitating the healing process is to admit that a wrong was done and to apologize. Without an apology, healing is never completely achieved.
I stand here on behalf of my people, who suffered unspeakable abuses because of federal government sanctioned residential schools.
I stand here for my community, Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan, and all first nations communities in Canada.
I stand here for the Métis and the Inuit, nations proud of their cultures, heritage and languages, nations whose suffering concerning residential schooling has often been ignored or overlooked.
I stand here for the countless parents who stood by watching powerlessly while some stranger, aided by the force of an unjust law, took away their children, took away their heart and soul, and took away their future.
Once taken away by strangers, separated from their own brothers and sisters, they would be made into strangers themselves, strangers to their parents and strangers to their own culture and their own language. Many of these children would eventually become strangers to their own identity.
I stand here for numerous victims whose stories will never be told, whose remains are scattered across our land in unmarked graves, scars on the land and even larger scars on our nation's psyche.
Many died in those schools because of illness and mistreatment. Many of the survivors witnessed scores of their contemporaries never making it home from these institutions. The survivors' lives have been marked by the tragic and unpleasant living memories of not only their own abuse, but also of the images of children who died. According to some reports, students in the early to middle part of the last century often had to help bury their classmates, their friends and their relatives.
Yes, Mr. Speaker, children buried children.
Above all else I stand for the children, now our elders, who have been denied their culture, their parents and the innocence of childhood, children who were made to feel inferior mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, children who were degraded and forced to live in unsanitary conditions that were criticized even for that period in time.
This motion, which fills me with pride to present today, also strikes a chord deep within me. It speaks to my people, who are again struggling to reassert their voice and reaffirm a heritage and a culture that have withstood terrible attacks, but I am also deeply proud of how strong first nations, Métis and Inuit people are. There is a strength and a resilience that will ensure they prosper far into the future.
It is not only the ties to my culture that make this motion so significant. It is that my own family has withstood this attack, an attack on our unity, our values and our identity as a family.
At the heart of this issue are people: regular people, average people and everyday people. We can call them whatever we want. They were parents who were forced to lose their children and their children were forced to go to these schools. They were parents who were not informed of the fate or the status of their children for weeks or months at a time.
This motion is for them, the strongest words I can offer. We offer these words to console them for their incredible loss, but to also offer them hope for a future based on truth and reconciliation as we seek to overcome the past.
With this apology, we hope to offer another necessary step at healing the collective intergenerational trauma that has lingered to this day. This is the legacy of the residential school era, but do Canadians truly understand? I think Canadians want to understand.
We have to ask ourselves if, as a country, we told the truth to Canadians. It is a tragic story. It is not pleasant and it is difficult to hear, but hear the truth we must, and it must begin with this government. We must confront these painful episodes of the past with the highest level of respect and honour.
According to an article in The Globe and Mail in July of last year by John Ibbitson, the Prime Minister delivered a speech in the United Kingdom in which he lauded British legacies of common law, parliamentary democracy and an open economy, declaring that “much of what Canada is today we can trace to our origins as a colony of the British Empire”.
It is unfashionable, the Prime Minister acknowledged, to speak of colonial legacies as anything other than oppressive. He said, “But in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant”. British magnanimity, he argued, ensured the survival of the French culture and British approaches to the aboriginal population, “while far from perfect, were some of the fairest and most generous of the period”.
I am not sure how the francophone community feels about the statement of British policies protecting the French culture, but I know for a fact that aboriginal people would not be too impressed with his assessment of past colonial practices as fair and generous.
The policy of the federal government at the time was to assimilate and to have Canada rid itself of its Indian problem. In 1914, a department official who was later put in charge of Canadian Indian policy, a man named Duncan Campbell Scott, stated in a report that it was quite within the mark to say that 50% of the children did not live to benefit from their education. Students died in massive numbers, due in large part to tuberculosis. I do not think this was seen as fair and generous then or now by aboriginal people or by Canadians.
To me it appears as though there is a disconnect between the version of history put forth by a Prime Minister to a foreign audience that British approaches to the aboriginal population were some of the fairest and most generous of the period. This greatly diverges from the version of history put forth by the testimonials of the survivors, federal government departmental officials from the time, and the extensive work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, among others.
This disconnect is precisely what Erna Paris wrote about. That is how the past is managed by those in power today to suit present day needs. I have to ask whose perception and whose needs the Prime Minister's statements suit. I can say that they are not tailored to suit the truth.
In some quarters and in some places, there is an unresolved struggle for the truth, a struggle concerning who gets to decide what actually happened in the past and who gets to decide how the tales are told. There has been recent exposure in the media about the lack of records of the fallen children from the residential schools and how countless forgotten victims are buried in unmarked graves. The loss of their stories is a loss of our history, and further weakens our ability to reconcile these past injustices.
The federal government has woven a version of past events which fits the perception it wants Canadians and the world to see. The government wants, as Erna Paris stated, to shape the historical memory of this period to minimize what actually occurred.
It is within this context that this government unequivocally stated that an apology is not necessary, suggesting that the settlement is enough. I ask myself, “Why the double standard?”
Suggestions have been made that, “Aboriginal people should get over it” and “What else do they want?” These statements are another form of abuse. I hope that these statements come from misunderstanding and not from a more sinister place.
I have seen and I have heard of survivors who received the advance payment. They simply turn it over to their adult children, saying that they were sorry for screwing up their lives, that they should have been stronger while in the residential schools, and that they should have been better parents. They blame themselves. They were children.
What is so difficult to understand? Simply, an apology would represent the manifestation of listening and hearing the truth, and understanding the hurt caused. An apology would say that Canada cares, that Canadians care, and that we are sorry.
But there are supposed barriers to this apology. Let me address some concerns I have heard regarding whether an apology to residential school survivors is necessary.
First, some would argue that the churches were the ones to blame and that government was an impassionate observer, simply an entity that provided funds.
Yes, the churches had a culpable role, but the Government of Canada cannot deny its role in the residential schools era. The Government of Canada acted as both the funding entity for the system and the provider of the overall policy guidelines that attempted to educate and colonize a people against their will.
Worse still, government inspectors and officials knew for decades about the inhumane conditions at these schools, including disease, overcrowding, hunger, disrepair, yet little was done to rectify the situation, and for many it was too late.
Second, I have heard that some people believe an apology had already been given. This is not the case.
It is true that the former Liberal government issued a statement of reconciliation in 1998. This was an important milestone, an important acknowledgement of the abuses that had been suffered and marked the beginning of the process that led to the Indian residential school settlement. However, it was not an apology.
The third reason not to offer an apology, which was offered to me when I asked, was that it was a legal issue. However, the minister has now stated he is not refusing to apologize because of any legal issue.
Finally, I have heard that since an apology was not part of the Indian residential school agreement, it should not be given. This is a rather absurd argument to make, for many reasons.
First, it has been recognized that in 2005 the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations had agreed that there should be an apology. The deputy prime minister at the time stated:
--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 [once the agreement was finalized].
With the Conservatives becoming government, it fell to them to honour this commitment by the Government of Canada to issue an official apology.
First nations, Métis and Inuit people have since, collectively and individually, called for this apology. The Conservatives have refused to uphold this duty and have denied that there is even a need for an apology. The Indian Affairs Minister went so far as to say that since the goal of the schools was to educate aboriginal children there is no need to apologize.
Again, we have an example of how this government is trying to reshape historical memory to suit the needs of those who are in power at the expense of all. Not only is this remark ignorant to the realities of the residential school era, it also demeans and disrespects those who survived, and those who did not.
I hope the minister finds his comment to be personally regrettable, as it is simply not true. I hope he respectfully withdraws his remarks and reconsiders the need for an apology.
The residential school agreement was the right thing to do. The minister and the government can take all the credit in the world for it, it does not matter to me. It was simply the right thing to do.
First nations, Métis and Inuit people sacrificed much to establish this country that we are all very proud of and call home. Canada is a country that attempts to be the most humane and generous in the world. People come to this great land to experience Canada's compassion and are proud to become new Canadians. It is ironic that the compassion that this country is known for, compassion first extended by the original peoples of this land, will not be extended to them by this government.
It is simply about this: an apology to residential school survivors for the calculated, intentional government policy of the day that specifically targeted children in order to undermine forever first nations, Métis and Inuit languages, traditions, beliefs, spirituality, family and community ties, in effect, to paraphrase a senior government official of the day, to rid Canada of its Indian problem.
Now I know that many of the examples I have given and the language I have chosen sound harsh and some would suggest that I crossed the line. Perhaps I did. However, historical records have not been all that accurate in documenting this aspect of Canadian history. Also, I am shocked that the federal government would want to reshape historical memory minimizing the impacts of the residential school era.
If it were not for the survivors demanding to be heard, if it were not for the groundbreaking work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, if it were not for the outstanding work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, many of these harsh truths would remain swept under the rug.
The reasons for an apology are clear. The Government of Canada cannot deny its role in establishing and sanctioning the residential schools. Until an apology is made, this dark period in time will continue to cast a long shadow that we cannot run away from.
I humbly ask all members of this House to support my motion apologizing to the survivors and calling upon the government to move forward with an apology to all residential school survivors past and present. Let us remove the long shadows of injustice.
I hope the government will join me in offering this apology. I extend it to the Conservatives as an offer of partnership and respect. In the Cree language there is a phrase that I want to repeat.
[Member spoke in Cree]
Roughly translated this talks about respect between peoples, respect of our pasts, respect of our histories, respect in a deeper meaning than we probably even understand right now. This is what the survivors are asking for, respect for the experiences they went through and an apology.