Why Justin Trudeau used the c-word—’colonialism’—in his apology

With a few simple phrases, the Liberal PM linked misguided ideas of past governments to present policy—and to the future

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of the Newfoundland and Labrador Residential Schools in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of the Newfoundland and Labrador Residential Schools in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

As the two prime ministers were basically to officially denounce the same historical ill, nine years apart, Justin Trudeau’s apology for residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador bore most of the same themes as Stephen Harper’s apology for the same federal policy in the rest of Canada. Both began by calling it a terrible chapter in Canada’s history—a “sad” one, in Harper’s words; “dark and shameful” in Trudeau’s. They both spoke of the abuse inflicted upon students, the lasting social and cultural impacts and the impediment a lack of federal apology posed to healing.

There was one key word the Liberal PM used, though, that his Conservative forerunner shied away from: “colonialism.” The word popped up four times in Trudeau’s speech in Goose Bay:

We must recognize the colonial way of thinking that fueled these practices…

Children who returned from traumatic experiences in these schools looked to their families and communities for support but, in many cases, found that their own practices, cultures and traditions had been eroded by colonialism…

Unfortunately, many of these intergenerational effects of colonialism on Indigenous people continue today…

This is a shameful part of Canada’s history – stemming from a legacy of colonialism, when Indigenous people were treated with a profound lack of equality and respect…

To be fair to Harper, his 2008 address in Parliament did criticize the wrongheaded premises on which residential schools were based: the notion that Indigenous cultures and beliefs were inferior. “There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail,” he said. But though he addressed the underlying attitude, Trudeau’s predecessor declined to talk about the outlook and philosophy that led to apartheid, cultural domination and genocide around the world.

READ: Read Justin Trudeau’s apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland

The word may be inteneded as a gesture of openness by Trudeau, says Matt James, a University of Victoria political scientist who studies apologies. “The whole discourse of colonialism and decolonization is very much on the lips and minds of Indigenous communities and leaders, and it’s a language the previous government did not use,” he says.

There is value in the word, and acknowledging Canada’s colonial past in a global context. “It helps us understand why (context) residential schools happened; but more importantly, it links the past to the present and then the future,” Jacqueline Romanow, chair of University of Winnipeg’s Indigenous studies program, tells Maclean’s in an email. “This helps all citizens realize the colonial remnants of current policy (Indian Act) and attitudes (racism, unconscious bias) that linger.”

It’s not the first time Trudeau has wielded the concept, which has primarily been the domain of progressives rather than conservatives like Harper, who by definition have more reverence for the past. When Trudeau split Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into separate departments for services and Crown-Indigenous relations, he criticized the “paternalistic, colonial way” of governing that the Indian Act helped entrench. Carolyn Bennett, the new Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, spoke of “decolonizing,” signalling desire for a sharp break with the past. There is now federal acknowledgement of colonialism in both the structure of government-Indigenous relations and one of its most damaging policy outcomes, residential schools. It’s safe to assume this government will employ the term in other contexts—pervasive philosophies have their way of sticking to lots of things. How will they decolonize? As always, words prove much easier than action.

RELATED: Newfoundland residential school claimants want apology from Trudeau

Canada, before 1867, was a colony of an expansionist Great Britain. It’s small wonder that colonialist mindset infected the country’s early political leaders. Indigenous thought leaders have been stating Canada’s colonialism as plain fact for ages, and often argue that colonialism continues today. We now have official acknowledgement that Canada’s legacy toward Indigenous people is one of colonialism.



Why Justin Trudeau used the c-word—’colonialism’—in his apology

  1. Not to to pass the buck on the whole residential school issue, but can we now start having a real discussion about colonialism in Canada. Issues like foreign investor takeover of Canadian real estate, massive immigration through socially engineered family breakdown, and provincial transfers to Quebec. Thank you Mr. Trudeau for getting the ball rolling for Canadians when it comes to addressing colonialism. This is your finest moment.

    • Somehow you see your imaginary “foreign investor takeover of Canadian real estate” as equal to child abuse in residential schools??

      Are you nuts?

      • I was talking about “colonialism”, not residential schools. Foreign take over of assets is a colonial strategy Emilyone.

        • Take over, period, is a colonial strategy.

          Residential schools took over education,language and couture.

  2. Currently there are thousands child refugees in Europe. They were sent alone by their parents with a hope of better life.

  3. Justin’s own father said those in the present should not pay for mistakes made in the past. I am student of history and wrongs have been done in every society including first nations communities. After all there was a thriving slave trade on the west coast long before contact with Europeans. Looking backwards in the mirror will eventually destroy us as it is already dividing us. We cannot change the past nor can we rewrite it. The fact money is always attached also makes me suspicious. What is next? Apologies to women for all that has been done to us? (no vote until 1916 ish etc.) This is dangerous. Justin Trudeau is slowly moving into the ‘creepy’ and scary file for me.

    • Well you’re certainly trying hard to wriggle out of it..

      But it won’t work…… Everyone is trying to rectify the problems of the past So knock off the partisanship.

    • When the present does not recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes its revenge.

      First Nations were not allowed to vote till 1960. The last Residential school closed in 1996 and that odious ‘rule of law’ was not repealed till 2010. Today, the ‘new’ residential school is the child welfare system. It has been 668 days since the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling called on Trudeau to end his government’s racist discrimination against 165,000 Indigenous children and 668 days since his government has refused to comply. So much for the ‘rule of law’.

      The reason ‘money’ is involved is because that is what most Canaduhians respect. That is where their heart is.

  4. Hey, nice try EmilyOne but I will not let you get away with your own prejudice (means pre judging) and narrow minded tribalism. My comment does not come from your incorrect assumption that is one of a partisan nature. I do not care if you do not believe me. Your mind is made up. Shame facts don’t matter anymore just personal opinions often with nasty comments attached. FYI I have voted Liberal my entire life but never again. They are steering us in so many wrong directions in my view.

    • Oh you’re being partisan alright. Blaming Justin for everything you can find.

      And claiming you used to vote Liberal , but never again….. is an old Con gimmick on here.

      I’m a globalist btw and not a Liberal so you’re wasting your time

  5. Hello EmilyOne,
    Just for the record I am not a Con, not a Reform a Con, not a nativist or any other name you wish to call those who do not subscribe to your world view. When I went to university in the early 80’s respectful, informed debate was the lifeblood of the universities and our democracy. I am objectively looking at several things that have occurred in the past 2 years under the current incarnation of the Liberals and have come up with my own point of view. My opinions are subject to change and evolution as it would appear yours are not and set in cement. If you are a globalist than universe help us all. Maybe you should have a look at societies where only one point of view is tolerated.,

    • Well you didn’t learn much at university, and if you can change your opinions so easily you didn’t really hold them in the first place.

      You have no idea what my opinions are…… you just got here

      ‘Globalism’ is not one opinion……it’s 8 billion of them.

      The topic here is colonialism.

  6. EmilyOne,
    You have very poor reading comprehension. Do not tell me or anyone else that we did not learn anything at university just because we do not agree with you. Ask anyone , scientists and academics alike, and they will all tell you that ideas evolve as we learn new things. You are exposing your own limitations by everything that is coming out of your mouth. Maybe you need to go read a book or 300 (maybe learn something) or go back to bed. People like you scare me. You try to shout people and speech down. Hopefully this is becoming more and more obvious in society and on the campuses. I will not comment on anything else you say as it is simply a waste of time. I don ‘t believe you even know what the word globalist means. This word itself is open to interpretation. I am working on my thesis and would prefer to talk to people who are informed by fact not their own hubris and opinion. Goodbye

    • You didn’t learn anything….and it has nothing to do with agreeing with my opinions. It has to do with your lack of research and your ‘hot shot’ attitude.

      Tear up your thesis and start again.

  7. Hello again EmilyOne,
    I wasn’t going to comment on your thoughts anymore and won’t again but I do owe you an apology. I was wrong about you.
    I just got home and read your last post to me.
    I realize that I have been talking to someone who is obviously between the ages of 12 and 15 years old. Because this is Maclean’s I assumed I was conversing with another adult. I am sorry. If I had realized this earlier I would not have tried to talk to you. Again I am sorry for my own incorrect assumption that you are of the age of majority. We all make mistakes.

    • LOL Knew you couldn’t resist.

      But I’m 71 sweetie, so I’m afraid you did yourself no favours.

  8. Wow you sure were waiting to pounce on your prey. ‘Gotcha’ you were probably thinking. Perhaps you are 71 chronologically. Your arguments do not reflect those of a mature 71 year old in my opinion. Thankfully I will never know if that is true. But you should try to
    listen to other peoples’ perspectives once and a while. It is how democracy functions. The last word is yours EmilyOne. You can attack me again or just leave it. Actually go ahead and attack. Everyone can see through you and I take it as a compliment quite frankly. Come on. Go for the jugular. My blood is red.

    • What you don’t realize is that your opinion doesn’t count for anything.

      You’re not even on the topic.

  9. But Harpergovermint made the beneficial move of ensuring that the restitution cheques could be picked up at local Ford/GM/and Dodge Chrysler truck dealerships. A Win-Win all round!

  10. Colonialism is a disease that is still with us and informs our thinking. Sadly, I fear that this is being dumbed down to only apply to relationships involving aboriginal people: the British colonial system was an extension of the British class system with a belief in an elite natural governing minority. Its racist notions were more refined and self-serving than the simplistic notion of racism: this involved the concept of a northern European race which somehow excluded Finns, Lapps and poor Irish and was often referred to as the Anglo-Saxon race for internal consumption. This was also a belief system that held that women were inferior to men (naturally). It should be clear that British colonialism was broadly oppressive: in 1867, approximately 1/3 of the population were either slaves or indentured workers and that electoral franchise was constructively limited to less than 20% of the adult population. One might note that even the raising of residential schools was fraught with class warfare: an Anglican archbishop urged the rapid expansion of Anglican residential schools saying “we’ve got to save the Indians from the jaws of these vipers” where the ‘vipers’ were Methodists and Presbyterians who’s egalitarian ideas extended to encouraging aboriginals to become teachers and clergy and even civic leaders. Paternalism of the colonial kind, i.e. an elite minority knows what’s best for the lower classes, still abounds. One vestige is the tendency to brand democratic notions as socialism. We should all be concerned about aboriginal issues since this is only the tip of the iceberg.