denouncing the residential school system and apologizing to the Aboriginal communities
On June 11th, 2008, the then Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper gave out an official statement denouncing the residential school system and apologizing to the Aboriginal communities. The residential school system was a social and religious education system commenced by the Canadian government in conjunction with churches to train the aboriginal communities on civilized Euro-Canadian and Christianity ways of life. The whole process was referred to as “killing the Indian in the child.” The system has been long criticized for the damage it caused to the culture and lives of the aboriginals. In the words of Chanie Wenjack’s sister, “this was a cultural genocide” (0:34). The Prime Minister’s statement, therefore, came after the light had been shed on the past injustices that the aboriginal Indians had been subjected to by the Canadian government. The Prime Minister was, therefore, speaking on behalf of the political class and the Canadian government to apologize to the Indian aboriginal community for the injustices brought on them. Stephen Harper made this apology as a way of reconciliation with the whole country and specifically to the Aboriginal communities who bore the brunt of the system of oppression. However, a closer look at the speech only shows a government that takes responsibility for a crime because people called them out for it. Subsequently, the residential school system violated core human rights, and it should take more than a simple apology from the government to correct the wrongs of the historical injustice of such magnitude.
The apology is not completely genuine because it assumes that the horrors of the residential school system are over. However, that is far from the truth because most people, such as Chanie Wenjack’s sister, are still suffering from long term effects. The speech or the formal apology does not take into consideration the surviving people who went through the same schools and are living with disabilities, mental disorders, or alcoholism. The aboriginal community members suffered varied types of physical, emotional, and sexual tortures during their stay at the residential schools. Ultimately, the horrors of the residential school system had long-term psychological effects on the aboriginal communities at their adult age. Most of them who were taken away from their parents while still young do not have an idea of how to raise families or how to interact with people in social places. Most of the surviving people who attended the school bear physical marks on their bodies to show the types of punishment that were inflicted on them if they were found speaking in their traditional languages. The claims of the Canadian government and the churches are that they were cleansing the Aboriginal communities from their naïve and barbaric cultural system and assimilating them into a superior civilized society. The nature of how the civilization process was conducted has drawn a lot of criticism, with many people calling it a national crime.
It is hard to discern whether or not the apology from the government of Canada and the church is genuine. The reason is it took so much time for the government to come up with an apology that does not show they acknowledged the magnitude of the crimes. It took the Aboriginals going to court to get the government to notice the damage and continued damage the residential school system has done to the aboriginal communities. The apology received widespread criticism as part of the nation believed that it was only symbolic and not genuine. However, other people have stated that the apology would go be significant in mending the relationships between the government and the aboriginal communities. Responses from the leaders of the aboriginal communities have criticized the government acknowledgment and apology because it is just a statement. An apology should be accompanied by support and involvement towards trying to the right the wrongs of the past. The government of Canada and the churches have had to be pushed around to acknowledge their wrongs. Even after accepting their mistakes, there have little contributions towards achieving justice for all those who were wronged by the residential school system. For example, the most standout case of the residential school system is that of Chanie Wenjack, who died while trying to escape from the residential school system. There are similar cases of those who tried to escape and died in the process. Others died while in the residential school system due to the rigorous physical and sexual abuses they faced, which led so many to commit suicide. The government apology should acknowledge all these wrongs and find ways of dealing with them. However, the official apology was thin-veiled and only acknowledged the government’s actions but provided no solutions.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been established to highlight the plight of the aboriginal communities and the experiences from the residential school systems. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples took on the work of documenting the effects of the residential school system on aboriginal people. The documentation led to an awareness of suffering that the Indian children suffered at the hands of the church and the government staff that were handling the schools. The TRC report brought public attention to the issue, which prompted the churches and the government to issue an apology in 1996. Subsequently, measures were put in place to compensate the community for the injuries, both physical and psychological. The TRC report led to the creation of the Aboriginal Healing Fund to a tune of three hundred and fifty million dollars for purposes of compensation. However, most of the leaders of the Aboriginal community saw this as not enough because it was the government throwing money at problems instead of addressing the core issues. The government also formed a treaty with the Aboriginal community to assist the TRC commission to support the healing process of the survivors. Subsequently, in 1994 The Indian Residential School Survivors Society was founded to help the survivors and also to create awareness to other Canadians about the impacts of the residential school system. In 2006, the government and churches agreed to settle with the Aboriginal community in one of the largest settlements in the nation’s history.
In conclusion, the horrors of the residential school system are still fresh in the memories of the Aboriginal communities, especially the survivors. The government offered a formal apology to the community, but the apology lacked concreteness due to the nature of the crimes committed. The apology can, therefore, be seen as merely symbolic and not genuine since the government has not offered an effective support system for the affected people. However, the commencement of the truth and reconciliation commission has served to highlight the plight of the Aboriginal communities and create awareness of the larger Canadian community.