The Commons: The Apology

A day of many words. And perhaps some promise.

The Scene. The moment came later than expected. Indeed, according to the official itinerary, the Prime Minister was due to start speaking at precisely 3:02 pm. But it was not until fully 3:15 pm that everyone was seated and Stephen Harper was called by the Speaker to begin.

He strode into the House of Commons with 11 representatives of the native community—last among them 104-year-old Marguerite Wabano, the eldest remaining survivor of Canada’s residential schools, tiny and dressed all in blue, a cane in one hand and her granddaughter by her side. Behind the Prime Minister walked Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs, and Strahl’s parliamentary secretary Rod Bruinooge, himself an aboriginal Canadian.

The delegates took their seats in the centre aisle, positioned in a circle before the Prime Minister. Government House leader Peter Van Loan, as demure and dainty as he may ever be, stood and moved that time be allotted for response from these visitors to this place. Each party duly consented and the motion carried unanimously.

Mr. Harper then stood, laid out his script on the green velvet lectern placed on his desk and, finally, began.

“Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools,” he started, simply enough. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.”

Not for the last time, a packed Commons stood and applauded, hoots, hollers and the beat of drums coming down from the galleries above.

***

The history in this regard is altogether epic—detailed in years of official press releases, program announcements, settlements and speeches.

On the seventh day of 1998, the Chrétien government delivered a formal “statement of reconciliation” to residential school students and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. “The Government of Canada acknowledges the role it played in the development and administration of these schools,” explained Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart in that statement. “To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.”

Three years later, the Department of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada was created. The IRSRC introduced the National Resolution Framework, which included the Alternative Dispute Resolution program.

“Addressing the legacy of over 100 years of residential schools is one of the most challenging areas for our renewal and reconciliation as a nation,” declared Indian Affairs Minister Denis Coderre in April 2004. “However, we must continue to address our collective past because our future as a just and inclusive nation relies on it.”

In May 2005, the government signed a “Political Agreement” with the Assembly of First Nations. Six months later, Frank Iacobucci, the “Government’s Representative,” reached an “Agreement in Principle” that set aside $1.9-billion “for the direct benefit of former Indian residential school students.”

A year later, the Harper government approved a settlement agreement, proposed a Common Experience Payment, an Independent Assessment Process and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and launched an Advance Payment program. “The government,” confirmed Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, “recognizes the sad legacy of Indian residential schools.”

A year after that, the House of Commons, by a vote of 257-0, adopted a Liberal motion that moved “that this House apologize to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools for the trauma they suffered as a result of policies intended to assimilate First Nations, Inuit, Metis children, causing the loss of aboriginal culture, heritage and language, while also leaving a sad legacy of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.”

“The position of the executive branch of government is a separate issue,” cautioned Prentice at the time. But then in last fall’s throne speech the Prime Minister promised “to make a statement of apology to close this sad chapter in our history.”

This May, the government set aside this date for that apology. The promised truth and reconciliation commission, under the stewardship of Justice Harry S. LaForme, was declared operational on June 1. And a decade after Jane Stewart said sorry, here we found ourselves.

***

Speaking at the United Nations three weeks ago, Jean-Marc Coicaud, the accomplished academic and diplomat, attempted to reconcile the very recent and very Western phenomenon of state apology.

The first official sorries of the 20th century, he said, came from Germany—regret expressed for World War I and then, later, World War II. “In recent times,” he continued, noting the rise of human rights, “states and the international community have invested much energy and effort into developing mechanisms to better come to terms with abusive and criminal pasts.”

Those who avoid the apology, Coicaud contended, seek to separate past action from present reality, but in saying sorry there is an appeal to universality. “The possibility and the need for apology presuppose not only that the past and the present are connected, that the past continues in and has a bearing on the present, but also that it shapes the future.”

And yet, at the same time, those who agitate for apology must recognize the contradictions inherent in seeking forgiveness for that which is often unforgivable. “The greater the wrong, the more valuable the apology. But, the more valuable the apology, the more difficult it becomes to issue and to accept.”

His conclusions were varied, but perhaps the most salient advice was the most selfish. “While successful apologies are about reconciling the wrongdoer and the victim with one another, they are also, and ultimately, more about reconciling with oneself … It is about accommodation with oneself. In other words, successful apologies, crucially, are about inner benefits—and inner benefits both for the victim and the perpetrator.”

Indeed, the potential for misstep—in wording, delivery, setting, purpose or assumed sincerity—is rampant. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, tried at various points to apologize for various wrongs of the past. But whatever his intent, he was, at times, savaged by the press. “Mr. Blair has picked up the trick of apologising for long-ago misdeeds that the apologist has no power to correct,” wrote one columnist. “He will be profuse, sincere and grovelling in his abasement when required to apologise for the crimes of someone else,” added another. “And he will wriggle like a maggot on a hook when an apology is required of him for his own epic misjudgments.”

In February, when the Australian parliament expressed shame for its own destructive policies toward natives, the opposition leader’s speech proved so clumsy he was eventually compelled to apologize for his apology.

But if there was a precedent for this day, it was Australia’s apology of four months ago. And if there was a model for Harper, it might have been the address delivered by his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, the bespectacled leader of that country’s Labour party.

Rudd’s speech, nearly 4,000-words in length and taking him nearly half an hour to complete, was thorough, personal and explicit. But also disarming. “To the Stolen Generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry,” he said. “On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry.”

In all, that simple, but pivotal word—disorienting as it is to hear it from an individual of such political authority—appears no less than nine times in Rudd’s text.

More important, the word “future” appears fully 21 times. And that, more than sorrow and apology, more than pain and penance, was the theme. “Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people,” Rudd said. “It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.”

This was a hopeful response to a dark and shameful past. Optimism, if that is possible, as a means of making amends.

“Let’s grasp this opportunity,” he concluded, “to craft a new future for this great land.”

***

Stephen Harper is not a particularly apologetic soul. Shame is not one of his more obvious qualities. Nearly every member of the Liberal caucus has at some point implored him to apologize for some perceived slight or another—the Prime Minister never so much as seeming to entertain the idea. Indeed, even when circumstances demanded an apology for Maher Arar, the Prime Minister could not resist making a partisan point of it.

“These events occurred under the last government,” he noted in the second sentence of a four-sentence statement.

So to have expected a Ruddian moment from this man was not to understand who he is and how he operates.

His oratory this day was as he seems to prefer—simple, practical, purpose-driven. The history was recounted, the political and religious deceptions accounted for, the wrongs listed and tabled. He fiddled periodically with his script, paused at moments, and made a point of speaking directly to the galleries. He appeared humbled. His fans probably saw one of his more dignified moments.

About 400 words in, he arrived at his point. “On behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian residential schools system.”

For five paragraphs, he elaborated on that apology before offering perhaps his most profound sentiment. “The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long,” he said. “The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country.”

There were sniffles and tears from spectators on all sides.

Mr. Harper used the word “sorry” only twice, choosing instead to “apologize” a full six times. Where Rudd was colloquial, our PM opted for formality. Though, in fairness, it surely would have seemed disingenuous for him to have spoken in anything other than his natural tone.

If there was an echo of Rudd it was, instead, Stéphane Dion. Though delivered in his halting English and perhaps running a bit longer than appropriate, this was an emotional, intimate plea, using the strongest of language. Rarer still for Dion, there were moments of identifiable artfulness.

“Today, Mr. Speaker, we lay the first stone in building a new monument. A monument dedicated to truth, reconciliation and healing,” he said. “We cannot be intimidated by the scale of the challenge or discouraged by the failures of the past.”

Tina Keeper, Nancy Karetak-Lindell, Todd Russell, all native members of his caucus, sat directly behind him. And Dion paused to acknowledge Gary Merasty, a Cree and former Liberal MP who authored last year’s motion, seated directly across in the gallery. When he was done, Michael Ignatieff extended a hand, the more accomplished speaker of the two looking impressed (if also a bit surprised) at Dion’s effort.

Forced to follow this, Gilles Duceppe opted for something else entirely. Less an ode than a lecture and spoken in the same sharp syntax he uses most afternoons to plead the separatist cause, the Bloc Quebecois delivered a blunt rebuke, castigating this government for failing to properly address native concerns.

He drew applause from the galleries, but only stares from the Conservative side. At one point, Jean-Pierre Blackburn removed his earpiece and threw it down upon his desk. And when Duceppe was finished, only a few government members could bring themselves to clap.

Perhaps seeing a new need for reconciliation, Jack Layton then concluded the round with a quiet, deliberate appeal. Too often and readily a political soul, the NDP leader seemed, on this day, a pastor offering counsel.

***

The Speaker next surrendered his throne and descended to the floor of the House. And with committee of the whole established, the proceedings were turned over to this Parliament’s honoured guests.

It was here that this seemed truly to matter. Here that the specifics of what and who and why and when and how were transcended by the greater purpose of a people and a country.

Standing then, in perhaps the exact middle of this place, was Phil Fontaine, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

“Way go go Phil,” came a voice from the north gallery. “You are our leader!”

“Prime Minister, Chief Justice, members of the House, elders, survivors, Canadians,” Fontaine began, “for our parents, our grandparents, great grandparents, indeed for all of the generations which have preceded us, this day testifies to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible.”

His head dress swaying and bobbing, Chief Fontaine was strident. “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,” he said. “Brave survivors, through the telling of their painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy.”

But standing perfectly between Dion and Harper—in the space otherwise reserved for the vitriol that is exchanged daily between the PM and the leader of the opposition—he made that rare, but periodically necessary, appeal to greatness.

“We must not falter in our duty now. Emboldened by this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together,” he said, then moving to the words of Martin Luther King. “As a great statesman once said, we are all part of one ‘garment of destiny.’ The differences between us are not blood or colour and ‘the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us.’ ”

Then perhaps the day’s finest sentence. “We still have to struggle, but now we are in this together.”

Ignatieff, seated five feet to Fontaine’s left, appeared visibly moved.

***

Three years ago, speaking to the Commons committee on aboriginal and northern affairs, then deputy prime minister Anne McLellan offered a rather blunt assessment of the obvious. “There is no single answer for adequately addressing the range of issues that sexual and physical abuse left by this school system,” she said, recounting the programs and funds and settlements and agreements. “No single response—whether it’s a healing program, a truth and reconciliation forum, or compensation—will resolve this bleak part of our history.”

Speaking today, Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, concurred. Though with a pointed caveat.

“Let us not be lulled into an impression that when the sun rises tomorrow morning, the pain and scars will miraculously be gone. They will not,” she said. “However, a new day has dawned, a new day heralded by a commitment to reconciliation.”

This is, of course, very easy to say. A welcome declaration, sure, but just words, as they say. Indeed, according to the official transcript, there were some 7,500 words spoken in the House this unprecedented day.

Whatever their worth, whatever they amount to, whatever comes next, it is impossible to know right now. But in the moment—in this place, with this history—it was pointless to doubt the intent and impossible to ignore the possibility each one of those words amounted to.

Indeed, when it was over, there were hugs, handshakes and cheers, some members even deigning to ignore decorum and embrace each other. The clock at the far end of the room showed 4:35 pm, at least fifteen minutes behind schedule. Though surely all seemed pleased to have taken that time.

The Commons: The Apology

  1. It should be noted that the apology to the Stolen Generations of Aborigines in Australia wisely undertaken by PM Kevin Rudd is different from the Canadian example we saw today, in two respects:

    1. No financial compensation will be made to the victims.

    2. Unlike Canada, there will be no Truth and Reconcilation Commission in Australia for victims to tell their stories and to assist in the healing.

    All in all, a great day for every Canadian.

  2. It should also be noted that Minister Stewart’s apology of 1998 was only and specifically to those students who suffered physical and sexual abuse at the schools. It was not a broader apology to all of the students who attended the schools nor indeed to all First Nations people for the collective harm the schools policy had on individuals, communities and the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations Canadians, as the Prime Minister’s apology yesterday was.

    The reason for this was that in 1998 the government was not yet prepared to legally acknowledge liability for the residential schools policy beyond those who could specifically prove they were abused; the Comprehensive Settlement Agreement that Aaron mentions has dealth with this issue, which paved the way for the PM’s full apology.

    Perhaps not a “great” day for Canada, given what necessitated it, but certainly an historic, important, and positive one.

  3. I can not recall a day before in my life when I am as proud to be a Canadian as I am today. This is truly a remarkable thing and the quote I like the best was from Grand Chief Fontaine when he said we are witnessing the acheivement of the impossible. Having family members who experience this blight on our history I send my thanks to Mr.Harper who rightly deserves the credit here as after all other leaders and partys had the opportunity but Mr. Harper came through here and big time. He deserves a special place in the history we are making now and I would like to take an opportunity to preempt the usual harper haters who no doubt will say things like : yes an important apology but …. (notice that but) interject any political statement you like here … well between you and me out there those people should be ashamed of themselves and at least try a little not to be so small minded.

  4. Apologies are great and all. But when are we going to sort out the reservations and the appalling conditions on them? Or the bizarre separate class of aboriginals who get treated differently, almost condescendingly, by Canadian law?

    We are all Canadians. If we aren’t, form a separate country and be done with it.

  5. The corollary of saying the policy of assimilation was wrong, I believe, is that you have to say a policy of separate development would have been the right one. The case for separate development was actually stated very forcefully and benignly by Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s native affairs minister, in words almost identical to those used by Jean Chretien in his latter years as DIAND minister.

    The policy itself was not wrong. The devil was in the implementation. And still is for current policies. As bad as ever but with even less excuse.

    I believe that either assimilation or apartheid, as separate development came to be known, could have worked for both sides in South Africa had the policy been adequately financed and implemented fairly and kindly, and with a ton of money. I don’t think it could ever have worked in the long term in Canada, it is not working today, and the prospect for its working in future are dismal.

    The case for apartheid in Canada today, as in Kashechewan or Nunavut, rests on naive and sentimental fantasies about a Garden of Eden utopia that never was. The so-called traditional way of life has gone, with the bow and arrow gone for Indians and Inuit, as with the horse and democrat gone for us. (Find any woman who wants to live in an igloo and spend her time flensing sealskins and doing childbirth out on the sea ice?! Mary Simon? Sheila Watt-Cloutier?)

    A South African friend whose father was an advisor to the South African PM says there was report recommending something similar to a Marshall Plan for the blacks, but of course less than nothing was done to adopt it. (In hindsight, the white South Africans should have all migrated to the Cape Province and left the rest to the blacks, including almost all the mines. That division is now impossible. The remaining whites are the new doomed people–notably those who have poor education and/or can’t leave.)

    The policy outline in Chretien’s 1969 statement could have led to Indians and Inuit joining the mainstream of our society as equal Canadians or, in the great Indian thinker Harold Cardinal’s words, Citizens Plus. That was what Cardinal wanted and for him there was no other long-term choice but integration–a more appropriate word than assimilation–to enable Indians to stand proud in the kind of future that Chief Dan George also saw the future for his people.

    Not only did Trudeau and Chretien fail to make the money available to finance the necessary education and skills training, but it has always been given short measure, and still is to this day compared with what is spent for all other Canadian young people.

    Paul Martin’s Kelowna Accord merely slowed the widening of the gap, barely perceptibly, between what is currently delivered and what is needed to the job. I estimate the need at $100 billion over 5 years, but Kelowna was $5 billion over 10 years!

  6. I’ll give Harper credit for the apology. He should be very proud that he can spew empty words so long as he doesn’t have to take actions to back them up. The students of Attawapiskat haven’t had a proper school in more than 30 years and Mr. Harper and his government continually refuse to make the investment to build the new school that is DESPERATELY needed. To apologize for the mistreatment of aboriginals in the realm of education while neglecting their needs in the same realm is the height of hypocracy.
    Does that make me small minded Wayne? Asking for action and effort instead of words, photo ops and fancy ceremonies? These are valuable thing in the context of broader action, but I am seeing none of that.

  7. Reply to Nicholas – I am an Inuk woman and I always note that Canadians, non-aboriginal, always resort to black or white attitude ” who would want to live in an igloo and flense sealskins?” The issue is not about returning entirely to traditional life, we all know the clock cannot be turned back. What is at issue here is that the native peoples of canada, through residential schools were not given a choice. Everyone should have the choice of assimilating into whatever society, culture, etc. they want. Most residential school survivors didn’t have the choice, and for that many communities are suffering still.

    I consider myself a modern and educated Inuk woman but I learned and still flense and home tan seal skins. This is my choice….this is the difference. And if I choose to live in an igloo, that too would be my choice not the Inuit or Canadian Governments choice. I choose to live the best of any culture whether it be Western, eastern, or northern. Come to Nunavut and experience for yourself that it is possible to live a traditional life, Inuit still do contratry to what you might believe. Why is there this belief that to keep tradition there should be no progress? It’s like saying all farmers in southern canada are not traditional farmers, per sa, because they have adapted to using modern farming equipment.

    Western Society is adopting a lot of cultural practices such as open adoption which has always been practiced by Inuit. The Canadian Government made me live with a British woman, not within the residential school system, and did have some success in assimilating me into mainstream society but it made reintergrating into my own culture very difficult and alienated me from my own family.

    I often wonder what mainstream Canadians would think if I went to southern canada, took a white 7 year old ,taught that 7 year old to hunt and eat seals, raw fish, taught them to speak Inuktittut only and they could not communicate with their parents when they returned?

    First, I would probably get criminally charged for kidnapping, then with violation of human rights, be found guilty and be put away in jail forever. The aboriginal peoples of Canada have been very resilient and adapted to a different and quite often improved traditional life, yes, a traditional life still exists, stronger than ever, for it’s Inuit like me who make the choice to live it.

  8. The traditions of the Inuit or the Cree in the north are very different, however, from, for example, the traditions of the Six Nations of Southern Ontario. The high population f white settlers forced those natives who inhabited arable land to assimilate much sooner, and the original culture is lost forever. These children were brought up speaking English. The situation was different than that of the Inuit or, indeed, the many different tribes living north of the Canadian shield and in the mountains. The entire thing was a tragedy, the loss of culture more so. However, I think the mythical ‘loss of identity’ eeryone seems to be talking about is a farce. Half the natives in this country lost their identity before 1867, the rest still have it.

Sign in to comment.