by Lloyd Dolha
It was standing room only as about one thousand people packed the Chief Joe Mathias Memorial Centre in North Vancouver to hear the prime minister formally apologize to Canada’s First Nations for the historical wrong of forcing generations of aboriginal people into the residential school system.
Prior to the formal apology, Premier Gordon Campbell addressed the gathering.
“Today’s apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to survivors of residential schools provides the opportunity to begin the act of healing,” said the premier. “We sincerely hope that healing will evolve from this apology, and that it will be a significant step toward closing a tragic chapter in Canada’s history.”
“We believe it’s our time and our task to tackle the issues of aboriginal disadvantage and disparity,” continued Campbell. “We are challenged and compelled to close that gap, fulfilling our nation’s potential and promise by ensuring that aboriginal peoples have the same entitlement to success and opportunity as anyone else.”
A huge screen carried the live broadcast from the House of Commons to the Squamish reserve as the prime minister rose to apologize for the residential school system in a fifteen minute address to the nation’s aboriginal peoples.
`The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,“said Harper .
Following the prime ministers video broadcast, Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacobs called for the healing to begin.
“If we don’t quit victimizing ourselves, we don’t release ourselves from the prison we put ourselves in … the effect that we felt multi-generationally will continue,” said Jacobs.
British Columbia`s First Nations leaders welcomed the prime minister`s statement of apology in a prepared release.
The leaders acknowledged that an apology could never rectify the decades of abuse and cultural genocide experienced at the schools, it is a critical step toward reconciliation.
Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit said that each of the survivors must consider the PM`s apology and determine if it holds any merit for them.
“Collectively, we celebrate and stand on the dignity of who we are and celebrate our survival. Together, we will build for our individual and collective well-being,” said the grand chief. “We ask Canadians to join with us in this important historical moment to talk about and understand the depths and consequences of the multi-layered and intergenerational impacts on our people.”
According to background information released by the First Nations Leadership Council, some twenty-one residential schools operated in British Columbia from the late 1800’s up to as late as 1981.
In 1992, a research study conducted in the province examined the effects of the residential school on survivors. As a result of its findings, the RCMP formed the Native Task Force to investigate allegations of abuse. Based on their investigations, 13 charges against former supervisors and clergy were laid.
“For most Canadians it would be considered absolutely criminal to think of children being forcibly removed from their families, experiencing sexual and physical abuse, living in substandard conditions and being stripped of their cultural identity,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “By apologizing publically for the residential school atrocities, we hope that all Canadians will learn from the past and ensure that no such disgusting genocidal programs are ever designed, legislated and carried out in Canada ever again.”