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'We apologize for having done this'

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Canada acknowledges role in abusive Indian residential school system

TORONTO - ''We are sorry.''

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a powerful and historic apology to 80,000 residential school survivors and sought forgiveness for their suffering and for the damaging impact the schools had on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.

''The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,'' Harper told the House of Commons June 11.

For more than a century, until 1996, the residential school system sought to eliminate aboriginal identity. Parents were left bereft and communities shattered. Children were terrorized and brutally beaten - sometimes fatally. They were forbidden to associate with siblings or speak their own language. They were poorly fed, and many died from tuberculosis and other untreated illnesses.

As the students returned, they were alienated from their families and lacked the skills to parent their own children. An inadequate education left most unable to succeed in white society. The legacy of abuse continues to reverberate through successive generations.

It seemed strangely inappropriate that the task of apologizing, part of the settlement of class actions launched by survivors, should fall to a right-wing Conservative whose advisers include assimilation proponent Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary.

But Harper rose to the occasion, acknowledging that removing children from their homes and trying to assimilate them into the dominant culture was wrong.

''These objectives were based on the assumption that aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, 'to kill the Indian in the child.'

''Therefore, on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for Canada's role in the Indian residential schools system.

''We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions; that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.

''We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.

''We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you. Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.''

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Aboriginal leaders were given the privilege of responding from the floor of the House. Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, spoke to those who crammed the gallery and gathered outside Parliament, or watched the live television coverage from community centers or informal gatherings across the country.

''Brave survivors, through the telling of our painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy,'' he said. ''The irresistibility of speaking truth to power is real.''

He referred to his own experience of racism and sexual and physical abuse during 10 years as a student at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba. ''The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help to put that pain behind us.''

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatam, turned to face Harper as she addressed him in Inuktitut. She told him she wanted him to understand that her culture and language are still strong.

''Let us not be lulled into an impression that when the sun rises tomorrow morning, the pain and scars will miraculously be gone,'' she added. ''They will not. But a new day has dawned, a new day heralded by a commitment to reconciliation and building a new relationship with Inuit, Metis and First Nations.''

Clem Chartier, Metis National Council president and a survivor of a residential school, thanked Harper and expressed hope that there would be an end to ''misunderstanding'' - a reference to continuing jurisdictional juggling between the federal and provincial governments regarding responsibility for Metis issues.

Many Metis residential school survivors have been excluded from financial compensation, as have the Inuit of Nunatsiavut (Labrador). In both cases, the issue is that the residential schools were funded at the provincial level.

''I am one of the survivors of a Metis residential school, which was no different from Indian residential schools except for the question of who paid,'' Chartier told the House.

In an interview, Tim McNeill, Nunatsiavut deputy minister of education, said the experience there was the same. ''There was sexual abuse, there was physical abuse, there was the abuse of being taken from your home.''

The apology was a hollow one for his people, he said, but nevertheless, like other aboriginal leaders, he said he felt Harper was sincere in his apology. ''We think it was a very honorable thing for him to do and we're very respectful of that.''

British Columbia Regional Chief Shawn Atleo was in the House of Commons along with his father, who spent 12 years at the Port Alberni Residential School, and his grandmother, who has lived with the guilt of having allowed her children to be taken and abused.

Atleo said he was surprised at the relief he felt when his elders said that they were ready to accept the apology. ''My grandmother says it's time to turn the heavy page. ... It was a bit of a freeing moment for myself.''

As the page is turned, a new chapter begins. Part of it will be written by a Truth and Reconcilation Commission, headed by Justice Harry Laforme, which will hold hearings across the country. The federal government started making compensation payments to survivors last year.