First Nations, Métis and Inuit today are marking the third anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s June 11, 2008, formal apology to their peoples for Canada’s 150-year-long residential schools program.
During this time, 150,000 children were taken from their families and put into one of 130 residential schools around the country in which they were forbidden to speak their language and were cut off from their cultures and communities. To this day 80,000 survivors and their children struggle with the legacy of what experts have termed intergenerational trauma.
But just as injuries to psyche, family and indigenous cultural fabric were wrought through the supposed education of aboriginal children, so too can education heal, said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. He used the day to push the aboriginal agenda of education reform as a way of moving forward.
“Education was used as a weapon of oppression against our people, but it can now be the key to unlock the full potential of our children, citizens, communities and governments,” he said in a statement commemorating the day. “Today, we remember the tens of thousands of First Nation children ripped from their families and communities. We honour their stories, their voices and their legacy. As they work to heal themselves and one another, we call on all Canadians to support our call to action on First Nation education and to support fair and equitable education that values our languages and cultures.”
Considered historic, the apology given before the House of Commons also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a three-member body assigned to collect information and testimony so as to educate all of Canada about what transpired. The commissioners have conducted meetings around the country, focusing on the north over the spring, and will hold a National Event in Inuvik from June 28 through July 1.
“I had the honour to be in Parliament, with my late grandmother by my side, as the Prime Minister delivered those important words,” Atleo said of the prime minister’s speech. “I will never forget the moment when my grandmother turned to me and said, ‘Grandson, they are beginning to see us.’ She told me of a dream of trying to lift a heavy page, and she then understood what it meant: It is now time for all of us to turn the page to a new chapter, together. That dream of reconciliation is something we must all commit to making a reality. We extend our hands to all Canadians in that spirit of partnership to work for a stronger Canada for all.”
Events were held around the country to mark the anniversary, which has officially been declared Canada’s National Day of Healing and Reconciliation. More can be learned on the schools and this era from this 2008 CBC News series.
The ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) commemorated the day as well.
“We still have a long road to travel but I believe we can do this together,” Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan said in a statement. “I look forward to the second TRC national event which will be held in Inuvik from June 28 to July 1, 2011. My department is working with other government departments to ensure a strong federal presence at this meaningful event. The TRC is an important part of the journey towards reconciliation; a journey on which we will work together to build a better future.”
The Prime Minister’s original apology speech is here. Scroll down past the speech’s text on that page for the full official video, in English and French, or see the version in English below, with some aboriginal leaders’ responses, from CanuckPolitics.com.