Northerners await historic residential school apology

People across the North are widely anticipating Prime Minister Stephen Harper's official apology to former students of native residential schools Wednesday afternoon.

People across the North are widely anticipating Prime Minister Stephen Harper's official apology to former students of native residential schools Wednesday afternoon, with some even flying to Ottawa for the occasion.

Some former students, including a group of Inuit from Nunavut, have travelled to Ottawa to witness the apology on Parliament Hill. Harper is expected to issue his statement at 3 p.m. ET.

"We need to be unified as Inuit … to help each other during this time," said Reepa Evic-Carleton, one of a number of Inuit counsellors in Ottawa for former students who may need support.

Inuit former students who came to Ottawa gathered Tuesday night at an event organized by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Tungasuvvingat Inuit Society. Another gathering for Inuit is scheduled for Wednesday evening, after the apology is made.

In Iqaluit, the public is invited to meet at the local cadet hall to watch a live televised broadcast of the apology. And in Yellowknife, the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs is inviting people to watch the broadcast at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre.

Students 'paid a very high price'

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami estimates that more than 3,500 Inuit attended residential schools across Canada through much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In total, about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and sent to the schools.

While in residential schools, students were forced to assimilate into Canadian society and lose their original languages and cultural values. Many also reported experiencing physical and sexual abuse at the schools.

"We have never, never put down the education system, but the loss of language, the loss of culture, and the loss of Inuit spirituality and the loss of parenting skills, and the problems that has created for us — we've paid a very high price for getting that kind of education," said Peter Irniq, a former residential school student who is also in Ottawa to hear Harper's address.

Joe Krimiqjuaq, a former student from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, told CBC News that he abused alcohol for many years and just recently sought professional help.

Speaking in Inuktitut, Krimiqjuaq said he will accept Harper's apology, despite the huge negative impact that the residential school experience had on his life.

Apology not a 'silver bullet,' counsellor says

In Whitehorse, social work instructors at Yukon College say Wednesday's apology to former residential school students must be sincere and unconditional. Otherwise, an apology would carry less weight with former students who may be dealing with abuse and other problems, they said.

"An apology that does not have feeling and sincerity and remorse and a true acknowledgement about what has happened is a superficial thing," said Janice Wiens, co-ordinator of the college's social work program.

At the same time, former students should not expect an apology to solve everything, warned social work instructor Dana Jennejohn.

"If you're looking at the scheme of things and you're considering what has occurred in Canada with the residential school, an apology is part of a process that needs to happen," Jennejohn said.

"You can't have reparation alone without an apology, nor can you have apology without reparation. You need it all. So no, it's not a silver bullet."

Jennejohn said receiving an apology can be a small but vital part of a larger healing process.

Commission will come north

The next step for some residential school survivors may be to take part in hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a federally appointed commission that began its work last week.

The commission will travel across Canada over the next five years to hear the experiences of former residential school students.

Commissioner Claudette Dumont-Smith told CBC News that her group will likely come north at some point.

"We're going have seven major events across Canada, but we'll be travelling to many, many, many different communities. So, anywhere that we're invited, if they want us to come out there and hear what they have to say, then we will go," Dumont-Smith said.

She added that the commission will have a better idea of where it'll be going in the coming months.

The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not to determine guilt or innocence.

Rather, it's meant to create a historical account of the residential school experience, as well as promote healing and reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.