By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a long-anticipated apology yesterday to tens of thousands of indigenous people who as children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools, where many were abused as part of official government policy to "kill the Indian in the child."
Harper rose on the floor of a packed House of Commons and condemned the decades-long federal effort to wipe out aboriginal culture and assimilate native Canadians into European-dominated society. "The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly," Harper declared. "We are sorry."
Investigations have established that thousands of Indian, Inuit and Metis children suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse in 132 boarding schools, most of them run by churches. The first opened in the late 1800s; the last -- in Saskatchewan -- continued operating until 1996.
"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history," said Harper, facing indigenous leaders who sat in a circle in the House chamber, some in traditional feathered dress. They variously listened silently or wept for what their people suffered and are still suffering.
The apology received a generally positive reaction from indigenous leaders. Mary Simon, an Inuit leader, told the House: "Let us not be lulled into believing that when the
sun rises tomorrow, the pain and scars will be gone. They won't. But a new day has dawned."
The children's stories have emerged bit by bit in recent decades, causing a national self-examination in a country whose citizens commonly view it with pride as a bastion of human rights.
In 2006, the government reached a $2 billion settlement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. Officials promised to pay 80,000 former residential school students $10,000 each for the first year they attended the schools, and $3,000 for each subsequent year. The settlement included additional compensation for sexual and physical abuse and established a truth and reconciliation commission, the first of its kind in an industrialized country.
Many countries around the world have attempted to close painful chapters of history with such commissions and with apologies. South Africa has examined crimes of the apartheid era, Peru and Sierra Leone the events of insurgencies. Australia in February apologized to its aboriginal people. In the United States, a bill to apologize to American Indians is in the works.
"The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities," Harper said yesterday.
"Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities," Harper continued. ". . . Languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools, and others never returned home."
In recent years, former students have publicly recounted priests calling them into small rooms, on the pretense that their parents had telephoned or were visiting, and then abusing them. Others told of being beaten with sticks for speaking their language and of forgetting their own names because they had to answer to numbers.
Social workers say the effects can still be seen throughout Canada, in the arms of indigenous drug addicts who walk the streets of Vancouver; in the eyes of children in Labrador who sniff gasoline; in Saskatoon, where police drove intoxicated aboriginal men to the outskirts of town and let them freeze to death; in the Arctic, where suicide is considered an epidemic.
"The memory of residential schools cuts like merciless knives at our souls," Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents 633 indigenous communities across Canada, told the House yesterday.
Fontaine, who wore a chief's headdress of eagle feathers in the legislative chamber yesterday, is widely credited with being the first aboriginal person to go public about abuse he experienced in a boarding school.
"These were lonely places," he said in an interview. "We were separated from parents and families. I was one of the people who suffered physical abuse as well as sexual abuse. Sadly, I am not unique."
Crowds of indigenous people poured onto Parliament Hill in Ottawa yesterday, many seeking words to help them heal individually and bring a balm to communities where poverty and alcoholism is rampant. Television images showed a woman in a black robe bowing her head and rocking. Sad and wrinkled faces of survivors watched large television screens on the lawn of the Parliament building.
Canada's health ministry sent counselors in white shirts to Parliament Hill to help survivors whose memories pushed them back to their darkest moments.
Kathleen Mahoney, chief negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations, said in a telephone interview that many children succumbed to tuberculosis. "In some schools, 50 to 60 percent of the children died. But they kept bringing kids. The more kids brought to the school, the more money was given to run the schools. . . . Deaths went unreported. Many were buried in unmarked graves. Many children ran away and died because of drowning or freezing."
Duncan Campbell Scott, who was Canada's deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, wrote in a government document: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic." The "kill the Indian in the child" wording is attributed to Scott.
Officials say the Canadian schools imitated industrial schools built in the United States. On Feb. 26, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that apologized for atrocities committed against Native Americans.
"The Federal Government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples and endeavored to assimilate them by such policies as the redistribution of land . . . and the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools," it reads in part.
The resolution, which urges President Bush to acknowledge the wrongs against Indian tribes, is awaiting action in the House.