Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper presents Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine with a statement of apology during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2008.


Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper presents Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine with a statement of apology during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2008.

February 17, 2014

Apologies to the students of residential schools from the various bodies that ran those schools are an essential starting point in dealing with that issue. But they are far from being the endpoint.

Indeed, a more basic question is, what is the endpoint and how do apologies help us get there?

Healing is surely one goal of the process. However, healing has two sides to it. First, there is the role of the body that created the problem – say, a church or the government – in providing resources for healing. Second, there is the role of the survivor who needs healing.

Healing cannot occur without the survivor taking responsibility for his or her own healing. There is an onus on the survivor.

The residential schools, however, were only one part of a process of oppression of Canada's aboriginal peoples. That oppression continues today. It continues in the forms of ongoing government paternalism, deplorable living conditions, lack of opportunities for individual and group advancement, and racist attitudes in the wider population.

Is it legitimate to expect healing when injustice and racism persist? Are not aboriginal people right to be angry about their oppressed status in Canadian society? Is not "healing" in this situation really a way of denying reality?

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians for the residential school system in 2008, he named many of the problems that the schools created.


Harper said it was wrong to forcibly remove aboriginal children from their homes and to separate them from their cultures and traditions. He recognized that in doing so, the schools made it more difficult for survivors of the schools to parent their own children and thus created problems that lasted for generations.

The prime minister also apologized for the abuse and neglect in the schools, and recognized the ongoing effects of such abuse and neglect.

He apologized for the schools and asked for forgiveness.

However, Harper did not apologize for the chronic government underfunding of the schools which created a lack of resources that historian John Milloy said was "the most persistent flaw in the system." Nor did his apology use two key terms – "justice" and "equality."


Indeed, one of his government's first actions after being elected was to reject the Kelowna Accord, negotiated in 2005 among the federal government, provincial governments and national aboriginal organizations.

The accord would have provided $5 billion in spending over five years to try to combat some of the most serious problems facing aboriginal people in Canada – poor education, poor health care, a lack of adequate housing and clean water (especially on remote reserves) and a lack of economic development.

For an apology to be real, it must lead to greater justice and equality. To date, the federal government's apology has been more words than actions.


Mike DeGagne, in a reflection in the book Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation and Residential School, notes that an apology represents the triumph of compassion over cautious legal advice. But while some apologies are uplifting, "others are shabby."

When an apology says, "I meant well" or "I didn't really mean to hurt you," something is being held back. Although most apologies promise to do better in the future, this is not easy. Any Catholic who makes regular visits to the confessional knows that his or her litany of sins tends to remain the same despite sincere efforts to change.

DeGagne writes, "The real power of apology comes afterwards, in the actions taken to set things right."

So far, despite good intentions in many quarters, we are still not getting it right. Many fine words have been uttered, but Canada is still walking on the path of oppression.