The first apology for the misguided (for want of a better word) participation in the residential schools was delivered by The Right Reverend, Bill Phipps, Moderator of the United Church of Canada on October 27, 1998. Apparently after the delivery of the apology, one of the First Nations leaders looked at him and said “Now what?”. It was another 10 years before then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper delivered the long awaited statement of apology to former students of residential schools in 2008. The same question held true.
The response to participation in any “unpleasant” business in many families, mine included, has been to put it all behind and go forward with a smile on your face. The problem with this, speaking from personal experience, is that it doesn’t really go away. Family secrets that are buried, are talked about in hushed tones or recorded in diary entries, as the people who have experienced the negative fallout, try to make sense of it on their own. Some people cope better than others. Those people from outside the fray muse about lack of character or fortitude.
Isn’t this the same case with historical travesties that are never acknowledged as wrong. They are glossed over and the people struggling to cope on the other side are judged wanting. It matters that the Japanese Internment has become part of our collectively understood history. It matters that the Chinese head tax has become part of our collectively understood history. It matters that turning away Jewish refugees in World War II is becoming part of collectively understood history. And yes, it also matters that understanding the policy to assimilate Indigenous people in North America is becoming part of our collectively understood history. I highly recommend Thomas Kings’ (2013)unconventional and gripping book:, An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America. He brings clarity and humour to a historical synopsis of Indigenous – White relations from pre-contact to present day in North America that we certainly never learned in school.
The discourse of the last election made it clear that many Canadians vocally endorsed the role of Canada as a society where social justice is a key tenet. That being the case, it matters that we don’t allow history to repeat itself. Our history paints the picture is of a society that has allowed fear of differences to be combined with self interests for land and wealth, to culminate in practices that have not been socially just. We have the analytical skills and socially motivated conscience to carefully consider our motivations and intentions before we empower politicians to act on our behalf. The bad news is we need to stare down history and identify the rationale for past decisions, no matter how horrendous. The good news is it allows us to carve out the path of a Canada that we want in the future.
Phipps, B. (1998, October). Apology to Former Students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, and to their Families and Communities. http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1998/a623
Harper, S. (2008, June). Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. (2008, June). Speech presented at the House of Commons, Ottawa, ON. http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1100100015649