Canadian Press/CBC News
Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologizes to aboriginals for the residential schools program on June 11, 2008.

Canada Marks Fifth Anniversary of Historic Residential School Apology

June 11, 2013

June 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to aboriginals for the 150-year residential-schools period of the nation’s history.

In his speech before both houses of Parliament, indigenous leaders and numerous onlookers, broadcast nationwide back in 2008, Harper acknowledged the lasting, and detrimental, effects of the program and its motto, “kill the Indian in the child.” (Related: Canada Marks Third Anniversary of Residential Schools Apology)

Five years later, though, aboriginals feel a decided lack of commitment.

“There is a growing frustration among First Nations across the country with lack of action and lack of commitment on the part of the Government of Canada to work in real partnership with our peoples and governments,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement marking the anniversary.

“Five years ago, the Prime Minister stated: ‘There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again,’ ” Atleo continued. “Those attitudes include the colonial notion that other governments know best for First Nations and have the right to make decisions for us, yet we have not seen change in the continued pattern of unilateral approaches and imposed legislation. This is incongruent with the apology and other commitments. We must break the pattern once and for all. Actions must match words. Our people are calling for a true and collective commitment to reconciliation that respects First Nations peoples and rights as the way forward to a stronger Canada.”

During the boarding school era, from the 1800s through the early 1990s, 150,000 children were removed from the homes of First Nations, Métis and Inuit families and forced to attend faraway schools at which they could not speak their language or practice—or even acknowledge—their cultures. Many endured unspeakable abuse, and thousands died.

Those who returned home did so to bereft parents, who suffered greatly at the loss of their children. Today suicide, drug abuse and untold other ills related to generational trauma are rife within many aboriginal communities as these peoples work to pick up the pieces.

But while Harper had made a commitment that Parliament and the country as a whole would undertake a “shared journey toward healing and reconciliation” with the First Nations, Atleo said, much of the initial euphoria has fallen flat.

The department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development’s statement emphasized what it saw as progress toward reconciliation.

"Five years ago today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons with all Parliamentarians, Inuit, Métis and First Nation leaders and offered a historic apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians,” said Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt in a statement. “He apologized not only to former students, but also their families and communities, whose lives were impacted by this dark chapter in our history. The apology acknowledged that the policy of assimilation was wrong, had caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”

Like Atleo, Valcourt said a new relationship between aboriginals and Canadians was necessary for the nation to move forward.

“We acknowledge that we must forge a new relationship, one that is based on an appreciation of our shared history, a respect for each other's cultures and traditions, and an honest desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that Canada's future will be stronger if we build it together,” Valcourt said. “Our government will continue to honor its commitment to these principles, and build on the concrete progress we have made over the last five years to ensure First Nations, Métis and Inuit are full participants in building a stronger country for all Canadians."

The going is still rocky, aboriginal leaders said.

“You have to put your money where your mouth is. And I feel that the feds have not done that,” said Mary Simon, who was president of the national organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami at the time of the apology, speaking to Postmedia News.

But Atleo also admitted that five years is not very long when it comes to enacting change.

“She said, ‘You know, they’re just beginning to see us,’ ” Atleo told Postmedia News, as he recalled listening to the apology in Parliament with his late grandmother at his side. “In some respects I guess five years feels like a long time, but in the big picture, words like that expressed by my late grandmother help us to remember that it’s actually a relatively short period of time.”

This does not let the government off the hook, he told the news service.

“We can’t lose another generation,” he said, reciting an oft-repeated admonition. “We simply have to move quicker.”