By Ethel Birkett LaValley
Wednesday, June 12, 2008 will go down in history as the day the Conservative Government said "We are sorry" to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people for their pain and suffering in the residential school system. With NUPGE's assistance I traveled to Ottawa to both hear the apology first hand and also to share the moment with so many of my sisters and brothers.
It was an ugly period in Canadian history. In 1874 the government legislated native people as "inferior" which set the stage, 10 years later, for children to be abruptly taken from their parents and put into residential schools across the country. During their time spent in the residential school system, many of these children were physically or sexually abused with the intention of taking the "Indian" out of these children.
These children were not allowed to speak their language and were not allowed to practice their culture. Many of the survivors of the residential schools still cannot talk about their experiences today. It is much too painful. This legacy of pain and suffering is felt not only by the survivors but often by their children. It is a past that continues to live within many families today.
Before the apology commenced survivors, families and friends hugged and shed tears of joy after waiting so long for this day to arrive. Tears flowed as so many of the survivors were united after such a long time. More than a 1000 people watched on the big screen outside of Parliament Hill. Inside the gallery was full, with the need for an overflow room to allow the gathered to hear the apology first hand. It was deeply moving to see the oldest and the youngest residential school survivors among the guests at the House of Commons. Also inside were 11 guests of honour sitting before the Prime Minister in a circle.
Not an end, but a beginning
A great hush came over the crowd as the ceremony began. Prime Minister Harper gave credit to NDP leader Jack Layton for pressing for an apology for the abuses of the residential school system. The Prime Minister in his speech to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis said "we are sorry and we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong. Today we recognize that this policy was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country."
Following the Prime Minister the leaders of the political opposition then spoke each apologizing for what has taken place. They highlighted how the government has failed First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, said the apology must not be an end; it must be a beginning.
After the political party leaders spoke the aboriginal leaders responded. Chief Phil Fontaine, visibly moved, said that "the memories of residential schools sometimes cuts like a knife in our souls." Bev Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada, asked the Prime Minister what he was going to do about the problems still facing aboriginal people today. She asked what the government is going to do to help deal with the major human rights violations that have occurred to so many generations.
It was a crucial day in the history of Canada and its First Peoples. Perhaps this apology will be the starting point of a new era of healing and reconciliation. I certainly hope so! But, this apology is only words if the government doesn't act on the many issues facing First Nations, Inuit and Métis people today.
Ethel Birkett LaValley is a former member of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) as well as past Aboriginal Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress and past Secretary-Treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour.