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CANADA: Apology Must Be Backed By Action, Native Leaders Say

Am Johal

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 17 2008 (IPS) - In a long-sought acknowledgement of the federal government’s role in creating Canada’s racist residential school system as part of its cultural assimilation policies, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology to Canadian First Nations in the House of Commons in Ottawa last week.

Most of Canada’s aboriginal leadership attended the residential schools, where they were not allowed to speak their native languages or take part in cultural activities. Some died at the schools, Harper acknowledged, and “others never returned home”.

Altogether, about 160,000 native students passed through the school system, which operated from the mid-1800s until the late 1960s.

“We now recognise 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 apologise for having done this,” Harper said.

“The government now recognises that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language,” he admitted.

“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 again prevail.”

Last year, Harper supported a move to revamp the Indian Claims Commission after aboriginal leaders called it a biased process. Though he has been criticised for not moving forward quickly enough on aboriginal issues, and for actively opposing indigenous rights at the United Nations, the formal apology has been viewed favourably by most leaders.

“In my opinion, the essence of the apology was not just the statement from the prime minister but also the acknowledgement of all the opposition parties and aboriginal leadership – that is what touched the heart of the survivors,” Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, who represents many bands outside the modern-day treaty process, told IPS.

“But there were many people who didn’t hear it because they either committed suicide [or died from] alcoholism or drug abuse. The residential school system destroyed culture, language, customs and traditions – which was its intent,” he added.

There are close to 80,000 living survivors of the Indian residential school system. The implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement began on Sep. 19, 2007. The deal includes a small amount of compensation and the establishment of an Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The 2.0-billion-dollar settlement was originally reached in 2006 between the federal government, churches and about 90,000 former students.

Harper praised the agreement and said it offered an opportunity to move on. “It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us,” he said.

Phil Fontaine, the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, was abused at a residential that he attended. He was present at the apology, where he took part in a smudging ceremony traditionally performed to clear away bad spirits.

In an official statement, Chief Fontaine said, “For the generations that will follow us, we bear witness today in this House that our survival as First Nations peoples in this land is affirmed forever. Therefore, the significance of this day is not just about what has been, but equally important, what is to come.”

“Never again will this House consider us the ‘Indian problem’ just for being who we are. Never again will the awesome power of government attempt to destroy us, to obliterate our cultures and our languages from this land – the land we have occupied since time immemorial. Never again will there be an attempt to ‘kill the Indian in the child’,” he said.

Marguerite Wabano, the oldest known survivor of the residential school system, told Canada’s National Post newspaper, through a Cree translator, “It is a grand day for me, it is a very special day for me to be here and to see what is going to happen today and I feel very thankful I was one of the members to be here. I have been very well received since I have been here, since I arrived in Ottawa and I am very happy to be on Parliament Hill where the prime minister actually works.”

However, Phillip told IPS that the apology, in and of itself, was hardly adequate in addressing the socio-economic gaps which still exist in aboriginal society.

“Canada must commit funding to help restore languages through a National Indigenous Languages Act, they should support the U.N. Declaration for Indigenous Peoples and engage in policy reform. Stephen Harper refused to move forward on the 5.1-billion-dollar Kelowna Accords which would have helped address the gaps in education, health, housing and economic development,” he noted.

Phillips said that poverty and inequality has remained institutionalised through successive governments. “Even though the budget for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs is 10 billion dollars, the second largest after defence, less than five percent of it is for economic development. The system of social assistance maintains the status quo under the current system,” he said.

Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar formal apology for Australia’s attempts to assimilate the aboriginal community.

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