Aboriginal leaders look to future after historic apology

The federal government's historic apology to former residential school students must signal the start of a better relationship between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the country, aboriginal leaders say.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, right, shakes hands with his nephew Donovan Fontaine as Chief Ray Arcand looks on during a smudging ceremony outside the House of Commons. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

The federal government's historic apology to former students of the residential school program must signal the start of a better relationship between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the country, aboriginal leaders say.

Addressing the House of Commons Wednesday following Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement — the first formal apology ever offered by a Canadian prime minister to those subjected to the Indian residential school program — First Nations leaders called for a new era in aboriginal relations.

"Our peoples, our history and our present being are the essence of Canada," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine told members of Parliament and hundreds of observers seated in the gallery.

"The attempts to erase our identities hurt us deeply. But it also hurt all Canadians and impoverished the character of this nation. We must not falter in our duty now. Emboldened by this spectacle of history, it is possible to end our racial nightmare together."

A group of 11 former students and aboriginal leaders surrounded Harper on the floor of the House of Commons as he read the apology. Although aboriginal leaders were not expected to be allowed to respond directly to Harper's statements, and those offered by all party leaders, they were ultimately given an opportunity to address the Commons.

"We know we have many different issues to handle. There are many fights still to be fought," said Fontaine, himself a former residential school student.

"What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada. We are and always have been an indispensable part of the Canadian identity."

Some of the 11 cried quietly during the ceremony as Harper, on behalf of all Canadians, expressed his regret for a policy of assimilation that "has caused great harm, and has no place in our country."

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As the five aboriginal leaders on the floor took turns speaking, many emphasized the possibilities of the future following Harper's statement, calling for an end to the anguish and racism that has marred many residential school survivors' — and aboriginal Canadians' — lives for much of the last century.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities, from as early as the 19th century to 1996, and forced to attend one of the country's 130-odd residential schools. Overseen by the Department of Indian Affairs, the schools aimed to force aboriginal children to learn English and adopt Christianity and Western customs as part of a government policy called "aggressive assimilation."

Many students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Around 86,000 are still alive and eligible for compensation under a $2-billion federal government compensation package for those who were forced to attend residential schools.

Inuit leader and former ambassador 'filled with optimism'

Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and former Canadian ambassador to Denmark, said the event symbolized Canada's commitment to reconciliation and building a new relationship with aboriginal people — including First Nations, Métis and Inuit — across the country.

"I am also filled with optimism that this action by the government of Canada and the generosity in the words chosen to convey this apology will help us all mark the end of this dark period in the collective history as a nation," Simon said.

More than 30 events were staged across the country Wednesday so the government's apology could be viewed on television. Several ceremonies were also staged by survivors of the residential school program, among whom reaction to the statement was mixed.

Some agreed with Fontaine and Simon that the event paved the way for healing and progress. Others, however, said they thought Harper's delivery was insincere and emotionless.

Patrick Brazeau, another aboriginal leader who took the floor of the Commons Wednesday, congratulated Harper for being the first Canadian prime minister to formally apologize for the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in the schools. The chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples called Harper's decision the humane, moral and right thing to do.

Métis National Council President Clément Chartier, who spoke after Brazeau, said he hoped Harper's sentiments will resonate in the communities of those affected by the residential school system.

"I believe those statements made about the dark days and those actions that take place will be addressed and hopefully corrected in the future."

Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, whose grandmother was beaten and sexually abused, said that the government's words must now be followed by clear action.

"We've given thanks to you for your apology. But in return, the Native Women's Association wants respect."

With files from the Canadian Press