Welcome Words on Residential Schools

Edmonton Journal
June 10, 2008

The apology is long overdue.

It seems as if it's been eons since Canadians agreed about the shamefulness of the residential school system that victimized so many in this land.

Finally, on Wednesday, Prime Minister Harper will officially recognize that brutality and seek forgiveness from our fellow citizens, the men, women and children of Canada's First Nations.

Each year, thousands of students visit the Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture at Edmonton's Royal Alberta Museum.

Among the exhibits designed to tell our original peoples' story is a representation of a one-room residential schoolhouse -- with ledgers, photographs and audio presentations that touchingly recall the myriad abuses of a cruel system that remains one of the darkest chapters of the national narrative.

With an estimated 80,000 former students still alive, some just now finally publicly coming to terms with their humiliations, there is no shortage of first-person testimony.

The notion of pulling children away from their family and communities in the name of supposedly kindly assimilation, education and Western religious instruction seems positively medieval, the stuff of bloodletting and faraway crusades. But the outrages are still fresh, and they happened just down the road in these parts.

The federal Indian Act was rewritten in 1920 to force every aboriginal child between the ages of seven and 15 years to attend either residential, industrial or day-school programs.

Parents whose kids were summarily dispatched to residential schools, in some cases many hundreds of kilometres from home, were legally responsible for seeing their children were offered up or returned after fleeing.

Hearing the stories on both sides, of families torn apart and bush pilots being forced to track down the recalcitrant, is nothing short of tragic.

It isn't ancient history, either. The last residential school to close in Canada was on the Gordon reserve north of Regina in 1996. In many ways, the trials of the George Gordon First Nation there have been symbolic of more than a century's worth of abuse, and the struggle for redress.

The institution was originally operated by the Anglican church and taken over by the federal government in 1969.

Some 230 former students have received payments of from $25,000 to $150,000 for sexual abuse claims, many arcing back to the activities of school administrator William Starr, a pedophile who preyed on children at the school for 16 years.

Those settlements -- in many cases far lower than other survivors of institutional abuse in such places as the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland -- are being revisited.

Of course, these things can never really be repaid. How does one measure the effects of being told over generations your culture, language, religion and land are worthless?

It is true that among the many documented stories of residential school horrors logged over more than a century are also instances of kindness, educational success stories, genuine Christian charity and staff who were simply unaware of terrible depredations happening right under their noses.

Needless to say, attitudes have thankfully changed over the decades, mostly for the good. Support for Wednesday's apology and further First Nations settlements is very high indeed across the country, reaching 70 per cent in British Columbia according to a recent poll, and in the 60's here.

And this in a country that finds it hard to agree on almost anything these days.

For some, even a heartfelt apology and attempts at material redress won't be nearly enough.

There will be those among us who will question Stephen Harper's sincerity, pegging the declaration as little more than an empty political public relations exercise.

Politics, of course, attends nearly every twitch of any government. Bitterness, even righteous bitterness, dies hard.

But successive previous Liberal regimes -- along with the more centrist Mulroney and Clark administrations --also had the opportunity to say we were collectively sorry, and they simply didn't.

While taking no one off the hook and recognizing that full restitution and justice is impossible, only the hardest of hearts would see Wednesday's apology as anything short of appropriate and timely.


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