sunrise-ceremony-cbc

Aboriginal Canadians take part in a sunrise ceremony near Parliament Hill on Wednesday morning, hours before the federal government was to issue an apology to residential school victims. ((CBC))

Students who endured abuse and torment in Canada's residential schools will finally get a formal apology from the Canadian government on Wednesday, a prospect that has many feeling a mix of emotions.

Robert Joseph said he is anxious to stand alongside other survivors in the House of Commons in Ottawa and hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper deliver the apology at 3 p.m. ET.

"I'm just anxious to hear the words, 'I'm sorry,'" said Joseph, a hereditary chief from Vancouver Island who was sent to a residential school when he was six years old.

"I want to know someone is sorry that they did that to a little six-year-old boy, and to thousands upon thousands of other little boys."

A decade ago, the Canadian government acknowledged the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in the now-defunct network of church-run residential schools, but Harper's statement on Wednesday will mark the first time a prime minister has formally apologized over the federally financed program.

The apology will be aired live on CBC Television, CBC Radio and CBCNews.ca.

Apology must come 'from the heart': victim

robert-joseph-chief-cbc

Robert Joseph, a hereditary chief from Vancouver Island who was sent to a residential school when he was six years old, will be among survivors in the House of Commons for the government's apology. ((CBC))

Joseph told CBC News on Wednesday morning that he wants to hear how sorry the Canadian government is that he was beaten repeatedly as a boy for speaking his native language, and sent away from his parents and family, who could have offered him love, care and support.

"I'm going to be accepting the apology," he said. "It's important for me as I'm getting older. I want to move on with my life and live the balance of my days peacefully. I don't want this issue to haunt me anymore."

Survivor Willie Blackwater, who will also be in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, said while he's looking forward to the apology, he also fears the wording won't be right, or something else will be amiss.

The 53-year-old repressed memories of the rapes and beatings he endured at a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C., for decades before speaking out. The testimony he finally provided helped lead to the conviction of his former dormitory supervisor in 1995.

He said he hopes Harper's apology is genuine.

"It's got to come from the heart," said Blackwater. "That's where we as aboriginals talk from, it's from the heart. We will hear the difference."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a former residential school student, said his organization offered the government guidance as to what the apology should contain, and what focus it should take.

"It has to be honest. It has to be open. It has to be unencumbered. It has to speak to the harms inflicted on our people. It has to be very clear in the commitment that this will never happen again to anyone," he told CBC News.  

No chance for survivors to respond in House

While a handful of victims and aboriginal guests will encircle Harper as he delivers the apology, and others will watch from the gallery, they will not have the opportunity to respond on the record in the House of Commons chamber, something that has drawn criticism in recent days.

After the apology, native leaders will be invited to make speeches at a ceremony held in the reading room on Parliament Hill.

Working business has been cancelled in Parliament on Wednesday to mark the apology, while ceremonies and gatherings have been planned by native communities across the country.

Joseph participated in a ceremony at Victoria Island in Ottawa River, where aboriginal people lit a sacred fire at dawn that will remain burning all day. Participants asked the creator to be with all survivors listening to the apology.

"There will be many, many emotions, and some of them will be painful. There will be a lot of tears," Joseph said.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl has said the apology will be a respectful and sincere recognition of widespread cultural devastation, physical trauma and sexual abuse affecting generations of aboriginal people to this day.

150,000 children removed from their communities

Overseen by the Department of Indian Affairs, residential schools aimed to force aboriginal children to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs as part of a government policy called "aggressive assimilation."

There were about 130 such schools in Canada, with some in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, from as early as the 19th century to 1996.

In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools, where many of them lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

In September, the government formalized a $1.9-billion compensation plan for victims. The government has also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the legacy of the residential schools. The commission was scheduled to begin its work on June 15, 2008.

The Assembly of First Nations said survivors watching the apology who need support can call a 24-hour toll-free crisis line at 1-866-925-4419. Other support information is also available on the AFN website.

With files from the Canadian Press