Residential Schools apology – the right thing to do

Yesterday, Prime Minister Harper apologized, on behalf of the government of Canada, for the country’s policy of placing native children in special schools to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’ schools in which physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

Like most Canadians, I didn’t know much about these schools other than that they existed and that many native people suffered abuse and a loss of identity and parental links.  I was grateful, therefore, when a VoC reader, Karone:rorakwe, shared with me some brief insight into the damage his experience in a residential school had done to his life.

The continuing fall-out of the residential school systems affects us profoundly even today, these many years after the fact. The residential school system was directly responsible for the loss of my marriage and my wife. I can understand the pain, the hurt and frustration of my people and their unseemly conduct. I don’t condone it . . . I just understand it.

As you, I was also a charge of the Hamilton Children’s Aid Society. I too have been through the mix of orphanages and foster homes. I must be a very resilient person for I survived relatively unscathed. A whole person at my advanced age of 63. (some humour there).

Karone:rorakwe to VoC, Mar 04/07

You can read our full exchange of thoughts in “She:kon, Mark” – Karone:rorakwe shares thoughts from DCE with VoC.’

I know the pain of having one’s identity ripped away since I was put into a Brantford orphanage at the age of 6 where I was eventually adopted. I was, however, never abused or badly mistreated as many native people were. Nor was I the object of an intentional, wilful, government program to deprive me of who and what I was; in my case, the state was simply doing its best to care for an unwanted child. Even though I ended up in a good home with a good family, my adjustment was anything but easy, and the scars have stayed with me a long time.

So, I understand, better than most non-natives, just how damaging it must have been to the native children – even those who were never abused or mistreated – who were taken from their families as part of an attempt to reprogram and re-educate them to the ‘white’ ways.

Some media in recent days have said the government should never apologize for historic wrongs because it creates an identity of victimhood by linking all of a peoples’ troubles to an historical event such as the Residential Schools. Some have pointed out that not all native people were abused, and not all those involved in running the schools mistreated the children, and that some students say they received a good education. Some people believe that the government had the best of intentions in creating the schools in the context of the unenlightened times in which they were living. This may all be true to some degree, but so much evil in the world – including race-based policing in Caledonia – begins with the best of intentions by those who believe that the means justifies the ends. Besides, it does not change the fact that it was wrong, and that it was done in the name of the people of Canada.

When someone does wrong to another, compensation is owed. Sometimes, the very thing that would compensate the most – an apology – is the very thing so many of us resist offering when we injure another person. Some natives, however, have decided they would rather remain unforgiving victims as evidenced by those who said of Canada’s apology, ‘Too little, too late.’ I hope it is not too late to do the right thing, and I thank my Prime Minister for doing it. Even if it only helps one native victim of one residential school to heal just a little bit, it was the right thing to do.

Mark Vandermaas, Editor
Director of Research
Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality

Comments are closed.