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Apology to native people must end 'denial of truth'

An open letter on residential schools to the Prime Minister from Chief Phil Fontaine

Published in the Toronto Star,  April 22, 2008 , by Chief Phil Fontaine

First Nations national Chief Phil Fontaine
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, left, and Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Wilton Littlechild honour Mary Moonias with a Pendleton blanket in Edmonton, October 4, 2007.

In the Oct. 16, 2007, Throne Speech, your government promised to apologize for residential schooling for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children which led to profound harms. Every expression and word of the apology will be of great importance to our peoples and will be carefully studied, as will its timing and place. After 150 years of waiting, nothing less than a complete, unencumbered and honest apology for this dark period in our shared history will do.

An apology acceptable to survivors must be offered in the House of Commons where the Prime Minister will address Parliament, the nation and the world. It must be an event as significant and meaningful as the apology to our brothers and sisters of the Stolen Generations of Australia, and our fellow Japanese Canadians. It must incorporate the ceremony and dignity that such a symbolic and historic occasion requires. The galleries must be filled with survivors, their families, as well as church and government representatives who will bear witness.

The content of the apology must end denial of truth and history. It must raise the awareness about the residential school policy and its disastrous consequences, admit that it was wrong, accept responsibility and provide us with solemn assurances that it will never happen again.

At minimum, the apology will acknowledge that a succession of governments systematically attempted to "kill the Indian in the child" by enforcing policies which separated children from families, prohibited the use of our languages and cultures, and indoctrinated us to believe that who we were and where we came from was not good enough for Canadian citizenship. It must acknowledge that the policies caused profound harm, loss and grief to individuals, families, communities and subsequent generations and recognize the need for reconciliation and healing.

It should specify that several generations of children were deprived of day-to-day parental love and support; that mothers, fathers, grandparents, extended family members and communities were equally deprived of their children; that health care, nutrition and emotional needs of the children were neglected; that many lost the ability to speak our languages, practise our cultures; that thousands were scarred for life from deliberate physical, sexual and psychological abuse; and that some never returned home leaving their families to mourn their passing not even knowing where they were buried.

Canada must apologize for ignoring our treaty rights and our ancestors' pleas for a good education for their children, acknowledging they were provided inferior education which detrimentally affected employment opportunities and livelihoods for generations.

There must also be a clear and unequivocal recognition in the apology that the primary objective of the residential school policy was assimilation founded on racist premises - premises of inferiority, disrespect, discrimination and inequality - premises which were used to justify the attempted destruction of our very identity and that this was profoundly wrong.

Finally, the survivors will need assurances that the Government of Canada will never again try to denigrate or destroy our identity as distinct peoples, compromise our languages and cultures or undermine our families and communities. We will look for assurances that Canada respects our rights as peoples, now and in the future, while recognizing and appreciating our differences.

As National Chief and a residential school survivor, I sincerely hope that by Canada saying sorry for all of these wrongs, my residential school brothers and sisters will be able to move on with their lives. I hope they will be able to accept the apology and find it in their hearts to forgive. I hope that as a result of the apology, the residential school era may eventually be remembered by all of us without bitterness.

To achieve the reconciliatory goals of the apology and ensure it will have a lasting and beneficial effect, it will be necessary for us all - survivors, government and church representatives alike - to embrace attitudes of honesty, generosity, humility, commitment and courage.

The power of a sincere apology is in its satisfaction of a basic human need. It can heal wounds of those who have been hurt. It can help establish trust. It can restore human dignity and self-respect. It can take the first step toward reconciliation. A sincere and honest apology given can add to the sum of justice in the world.

I truly hope, Prime Minister, that your long awaited apology will meet these goals.


Phil Fontaine
National Chief Assembly of First Nations