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Ontario's Formal Residential School Apology Sets Precedent: Indigenous Leaders

Aboriginal leaders in Canada this week hailed as precedent-setting the formal apology by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to Indigenous Peoples for the residential school era, a first for a province, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that a year earlier had called the program “cultural genocide.”

On May 30, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne rose to her feet on the floor of the Ontario Legislative Assembly.

“As Premier, I apologize for the policies and practices supported by past Ontario governments and for the harm they caused,” Wynne said to a crowd including Metís, First Nation and Inuit leaders as well as residential school survivors. “I apologize for the province’s silence in the face of abuses and deaths at residential schools. And I apologize for the fact that the residential schools are only one example of systemic, intergenerational injustices inflicted upon Indigenous communities throughout Canada.”

RELATED: Premier Kathleen Wynne's Residential Schools Apology: Ontario's Commitment to Reconciliation

June 2 marked a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a final report on its lengthy investigation of the program created specifically to “kill the Indian in the child.” The final full report, released last December, pulled together six years of testimony from survivors in 300 communities.

RELATED: 'Cultural Genocide,' Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

Eighteen of these schools were in Ontario, the provincial government said, the first opening in 1832 and the last one closing in 1991. The students were aged five to 14.

“Children in residential schools were up to five times more likely to die than their counterparts in the rest of Canada,” the province said.

RELATED: 6,000 Kids Died in Residential Schools: Canada Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Wynne also announced a set of initiatives titled The Journey Together: Ontario's Commitment to Reconciliation With Indigenous Peoples, which plans to invest more than $250 million over the next three years “in programs and actions focused on reconciliation which will be developed and evaluated in close partnership with our indigenous partners,” she said.

Ontario will “educate all Ontarians about the horrors of the residential school system, the betrayal of past governments and our rights and responsibilities as treaty people—because in Ontario, we are all treaty people,” Wynne said, adding that school curricula will include content on the subject.

Part of the money will go to uncovering death records of children who never got out of the residential schools and to identifying burial sites. Ontario is also committed to opening or expanding mental health and addiction treatment centers for aboriginals and to increasing licensed child-care spaces in “culturally relevant programs,” according to the plan.

Also promised in The Journey Together are enhancements to the justice system—the addition of culturally appropriate diversion programs to lessen incarceration. Attention will be given to promotion of indigenous languages, and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs is being renamed the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

The premier spoke supported by all political parties, and the Legislative Assembly welcomed onto the floor representatives of various aboriginal organizations as well as some residential school survivors.

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Regional Chief Isadore Day, one of the indigenous leaders on hand, spoke not only of the “unspeakable abuse” in the residential schools but also of the current situation of aboriginals, of “the deepness of poverty that continues to kill our people.”

Photo: via GlobalNews.ca

Children at a residential school in Canada.

“We are reminded of a system meant to kill the Indian in the child,” said Day, according to a transcript from the AFN. “We will walk together on a path toward building happy, healthy First Nation communities. And with the full involvement and inclusion of Indian residential school survivors in all aspects of moving forward, for it is they who have carried the full burden and have experienced the darkness of this history. They must never again feel left out, alone, or abandoned—this process and these investments belong to them.”

Helen Cromarty, who spent 11 years in residential schools, echoed Day’s concerns about poverty, adding that high suicide rates underline the despair, she told the Canadian Press. Residential school survivor Andrew Wesley told the legislators of his difficulty with the idea of reconciliation and of how his wife led him to accept the rightness of such a move.

“I was taken away,” he told those assembled at the legislature, according to the Canadian Press. “I was beaten up, but I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I reconcile to the government and the church?”

The move was also welcomed as precedent-setting, and the AFN suggested that the other provinces follow suit.

“I’m urging all provinces and territories to step up and show how they will act for change,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement.

AFN Regional Chief Morley Googoo, who is the AFN specialist on the truth and reconciliation process, said it was time for action rather than more talk. So did Justice Murray Sinclair, who had chaired the TRC and was recently appointed as a Senator by Trudeau.

"The apology is always significant but it always has to be followed by action," Sinclair told reporters at Algoma University, according to the news website SooToday.com. "The words in and of themselves are meaningless if there's no action to them, so it's important to change behavior.”

“We want to see timelines and benchmarks for change,” Googoo said. “We recognize the strong leadership and advocacy of First Nations in Ontario for ensuring the provincial government is moving on reconciliation. We must keep up this momentum for change.”

“The Province of Ontario is leading the way in this country with this Statement of Reconciliation,” said Chief Ava Hill, Six Nations of the Grand River, in the AFN statement. “It has set the bar for the rest of the provinces, and they are to be commended for the commitments they have made with respect to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

The leaders also acknowledged the former students who had testified before the commission.

“On behalf of Six Nations Elected Council, I would also like to acknowledge and thank all of those residential school survivors who had the courage to tell their stories,” Hill said. “Without them, there would not have been any Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also need to thank them for ensuring that all of our issues are now foremost in the minds of the federal and provincial governments. We owe a debt of gratitude to all the residential school survivors.”