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.

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