'Failing to confront a heinous history:' UBC apologizes to victims of residential schools

University of British Columbia president Santa Ono apologized to victims of residential schools, in an event marking the official opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre on campus on Monday.

University president makes apology at opening of Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

UBC president Santa Ono apologizes to residential school survivors on Monday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In a statement laden with emotion, University of British Columbia president Santa Ono apologized to the victims of the residential school system on Monday, at an event marking the official opening of Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre on campus.

Several hundred people came to hear the apology, including many survivors of residential schools and dignitaries like Grand Chief Edward John and Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

"On behalf of the university and all its people, I apologize to all of you who are survivors of the residential schools, to your families and communities and to all Indigenous people for the role this university played in perpetuating that system," Ono said from the podium.

"We apologize for the actions and inaction of our predecessors and renew our commitment to working with all of you for a more just and equitable future," he said.

Grand Chief Edward John (right), Cindy Tom-Lindley, a former residential school student at Kamloops Indian Residential School and executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS), and Barney Williams, a survivor of the Christie Residential School, listen to UBC president Santa Ono's apology to the victims of residential schools. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Ono spoke of the horrors that took place at the residential schools, including mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

He said the death rate at schools at times surpassed 60 per cent, and expressed shame in regard to the broad goal of the schools, which was to strip Indigenous children from ties to their families, communities and culture.

Although the system was run by churches and the federal government, Ono said educational institutions, including UBC, trained many of the policymakers and administrators who operated the system, did little to address the exclusion of Indigenous people at the university, and bears some responsibility for "tacitly accepting the silence surrounding it."

"Failing to confront a heinous history, even if it was one that we did not cause, is to become complicit in its perpetuation," said Ono.

Ono also noted that the university has been built on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam people, who have inhabited the land for millennia.

Cindy Tom-Lindley, a former residential school student at Kamloops Indian Residential School, and UBC president Santa Ono unveil a plaque for the new Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre on Monday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

New history and dialogue centre

The new Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, built at the heart of the campus, has been designed as a place where residential school survivors and their families can access records and share their experience. It includes an interactive exhibit about the schools' history.

Residential school survivor Barney Williams was one of the people who spoke from the podium during the event. He was taken from his home on Meares Island, near Tofino, and spent his childhood at the nearby Christie Residential School.

"I think that was a long time coming," said Williams of Ono's remarks. "I think that it was really classy that he was able to make that apology for an institution as large as this one ... and also with the sincerity that he had."

Residential school survivor Barney Williams shares some remarks after Santa Ono's apology for UBC's role in the residential school system. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Williams said the new centre was a good opportunity for people like him to reflect and access the history, even if it's difficult.

"It's always nice to remember. I think it's a dark history that will never go away, but it's always good for me to be able to talk about it and be able to come away from it and still feel good about me," said Williams.

"To all the survivors, it's an opportunity. If you want to take time, please do," he said, adding that nobody should feel forced to relive the experience if they prefer not to.

UBC president Santa Ono listens as residential school survivor Barney Williams addresses the crowd on Monday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Cindy Tom-Lindley in two of the photo captions.
    Apr 10, 2018 10:40 AM PT