On June 11th 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a formal apology on behalf of Canadians for the federal government’s implementation of the Indian Residential School system. In the apology, it was noted that it was wrong for the government to have forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and families, prohibited students from speaking their languages and practicing their cultures, the abuse and neglect that happened in these schools, and how the IRS system permanently damaged many of those that survived who then passed the trauma on to future generations.
This apology was not done in a gesture of genuine regret and goodwill: the government had been facing pressure to apologize for some time. It was also not the first group involved in IRS to apologize. In fact, some of the churches involves in the IRS system had apologized in previous decades: the United Church of Canada apologized in 1986, followed by the Roman Catholic Church in 1991 and the Church of England in 1993 (Miller, 2009).
Was the apology important? Yes! It was in fact extremely important because the government was admitting to the wrongs they caused generations of Indigenous people, and how it has affected the children that have come after.
However, I do not think the apology was as earnest as it could be because it is missing a very crucial point. A truly honest apology is comprised of three parts: 1) an acknowledgement of causing some sort of harm; 2) the statement “I’m/we’re sorry” or “I/we apologize;” and 3) some indication that the harm will not be repeated.
In the Canadian government’s apology for the Indian Residential School system there is no mention that abusive behaviour mandated by the government will not continue.
I think there are a number of reasons for this, but I am only going to speak to two of them.
First, within the apology there is no indication of what legislated the the mandatory attendance of IRS: the Indian Act. Along with legislating what did and did not constitute an Indian, forbidding spiritual and ceremonial practices, preventing Indian-grown agricultural goods to be sold to non-Indigenous folks, having the authority to determine if Indians were permitted on and off reserves, controlling who could vote in band elections, and disallowing the ability to pursue land claims among other rules, the Indian Act made it mandatory for children to attend IRS in 1920. Although it has been revised numerous times since it was passed in 1876, the Indian Act still exists and therefore determines the rights First Nation peoples have today. I simply do not understand how the government could offer an apology for IRS without mention of the Indian Act.
Second, although it is not manifesting in quite the same way as IRS, the federal government continues disregard how it’s actions continue to bring harm to Indigenous people. More specifically, the Canadian government chooses to ignore and/or underfund Indigenous concerns which is a continuance of colonial violence. Like how Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 federal report illustrated how residential schools underfed students, making them live in inhospitable conditions that exacerbated the rates of disease (Miller, 2009), the Canadian government has been told through numerous reports, statistical data, scholarly works, lobby groups, petitions, and political organizations that it’s behaviour has been and continues to be injurious to Indigenous people. This is exemplified in over 800 missing and murdered Indigenous women (with the call for an inquiry recently rejected by the Conservative government), reserve school annual funding amounts that are lower than inflation rates, and poor access to health care. In turn, this manifests in lower socioeconomic statuses, rates of compulsory education completion, and life expectancy while simultaneously resulting in higher rates of incarceration, preventable disease, suicide, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and child welfare apprehension in comparison to the settler population.
In essence, the Canadian government did not offer to never commit harm again because they knew they still are. Thus, the Canadian government’s apology was not a sincere one.
My brief assessment of the apology is demonstrative of ongoing settler colonialism and racism portrayed by the Canadian government. I think it is fairly obvious to state that this is not something that should continue, but my concern is that it will. From this, I think there is a lot that needs to and can be done but settlers really need to learn to truly listen. As people with unearned privileges resulting from the theft of Indigenous lands, it is up to us to learn and to listen in order to improve our relationships in order to make things better for the children that have yet to be born.