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A long-awaited apology for residential schools

The Story

Warning: This video contains distressing details.

A circle of eleven chairs on the floor of the House of Commons shows that this is no ordinary day in Parliament. The chairs are for five Indigenous leaders and six residential school survivors who have been invited here for an extraordinary event: an apology from the government of Canada for residential schools and the damage they caused to Aboriginal people. In this live special broadcast from CBC Newsworld, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognizes the wrongs of the past.  "Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country," says Harper. "The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry." Harper's apology is followed by remarks from Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, who acknowledges his party's complicity in the residential schools policy, having governed Canada for 70 years in the 20th century. Two more federal party leaders, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québecois and Jack Layton of the NDP, reflect on the apology and rebuke the Harper government for not endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. From the circle, Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, responds to the apology to cheers from the viewing galleries. "Never again will we be the 'Indian problem'," says Fontaine. "Today is the result of the righteousness of our struggle." Fontaine is followed by eloquent, heartfelt remarks from Patrick Brazeau of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Mary Simon of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Clement Chartier of the Métis National Council, and Beverley Jacobs of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government-funded residential schools from the 19th century to 1996, when the last one closed. They lived in substandard conditions and endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The system was "cultural genocide," said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419 to support former students and others affected by a residential school experience.


Medium: Television
Program: News Special
Broadcast Date: June 11, 2008
Guests: Patrick Brazeau, Clem Chartier, Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe, Phil Fontaine, Stephen Harper, Beverley Jacobs, Jack Layton, Jim Miller, Mary Simon
Host: Don Newman
Reporter: Rosemary Barton
Duration: 1:25:20

Did You know?

• Though the Chrétien government had already delivered an apology to former residential school students, it didn't have the depth and gravity of this 2008 apology. The 1998 "Statement of Reconciliation" was delivered by then-Indian Affairs minister Jane Stewart, not the prime minister, and took place in a conference room, not Parliament.

• The process of bringing about the historic 2008 apology began in 2007, following government apologies for the Chinese head tax and the treatment of Maher Arar. Liberal MP Gary Merasty put forth a motion calling for the House to apologize to residential school survivors. It passed 257-0. According to the Globe and Mail, NDP leader Jack Layton pressured the government to act on the motion, noting that many survivors might not live to hear it.

• The government's original plan for the day of the apology did not allow for responses from the floor by the five Aboriginal leaders. In the House the day before, Liberal MP Tina Keeper said, "Surely, this House owes survivors the courtesy of listening to them in return, right here, immediately, on the official Hansard." A clever use of the rules of the House, suggested by NDP press secretary Ian Capstick just an hour before the apology, set the stage for a unanimous agreement to allow the Aboriginal leaders to speak after the apology.

• At the time of the 2008 apology, some $1.34 billion in Common Experience Payments had been paid out to 65,584 residential school survivors. These payments were for any person who had spent time in a residential school.

• Another $157 million had been paid to 2,900 former students who could prove they'd experienced abuse in residential schools. An estimated 7,600 claims of abuse still awaited adjudication. 



A Lost Heritage: Canada's Residential Schools more