Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

From Reconciliation to Reconciling: Reading What "We Now Recognize" in the Government of Canada's 2008 Residential Schools Apology

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

From Reconciliation to Reconciling: Reading What "We Now Recognize" in the Government of Canada's 2008 Residential Schools Apology

Article excerpt

In JUNE 1991, ASSISTANT DEPUTY MINISTER FOR INDIAN AFFAIRS, Bill Van Iterson, offered what may have been the first governmental apology for the Canadian Indian residential schools system. While attending a national conference convened in Vancouver to examine the legacy of the residential schools system, Van Iterson apologized to the Indigenous and Metis peoples present, according to the Vancouver Sun, "on behalf of public servants" (Todd A2). Reaction to this apology and others offered on the same day by Anglican, Catholic, and United Church officials was mixed, with at least one respondent stating that the apology ought to come from "the Prime Minister and his cabinet" (Todd A2), rather than from an assistant deputy minister. On 7 January 1998, Jane Stewart, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, issued a significantly more detailed and specific "Statement of Reconciliation." Speaking on behalf of "the Government of Canada," in her address to First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples "who experienced the tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools," Stewart said, "we wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault and should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry" (Canada, Notes). The statement was explicitly positioned as the state's response to the final report delivered by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP); although it acknowledged RCAP's insistence that "The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong," the statement did not, for example, respond to RCAP's call either for the dismantling of the Department of Indian Affairs or for the establishment of a separate Aboriginal parliament (Canada, Notes; DePalma). The Stewart Statement of Reconciliation was delivered on Parliament Hill during a lunch-hour ceremony from which then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was notably absent (Murphy 7). In contrast, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered the most recent apology, on 11 June 2008, to a sitting Parliament in the House of Commons. This "official statement of apology" was offered "on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians." (1) The apology situates itself as initiating the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission and as proceeding from the "implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement [which] began on September 19, 2007," an agreement that promised a compensation package of close to $2 billion in order to settle a class-action lawsuit against the government which consolidated what had been thousands of individual lawsuits by residential schools survivors and relatives (Shingwauk News). (2) Harper's apology was spurred in part by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to Indigenous peoples for the "Stolen Generations" in February 2008 (Welch). Harper's mea culpa was also an attempt to offset negative international press for Canada's 2007 vote against, and subsequent refusal to adopt, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a move that received, and continues to receive, widespread criticism both within Canada and abroad (see Bruner; CBC, Canada Votes No').

The government's repeated statements of contrition suggest the difficulty of attempting to preserve the dominant narrative of Canada as a progressive, peaceable, and inclusive nation, while responding to the longstanding insistence by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis groups that the state acknowledge and apologize for the egregious and systemic abuses of the residential schools system. In a 2008 open letter to Prime Minister Harper, Ted Quewezance, then Executive Director of the Residential School Survivors of Canada (RSSC), summarizes RSSC's expectations for the apology, insisting that the state provide a full and public accounting of, and take full and public responsibility for, the creation and implementation of the Indian residential schools system (Quewezance). …

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