Apologies | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
 Graphic from cover of "Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools."


Learn about the apologies offered by the government and churches of Canada to the Indigenous Peoples, and consider the role of apologies in transitional justice.


  • Social Studies




English — CA



This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.


About This Chapter

In what ways can apologies help a society move toward a more peaceful future? In this chapter, we begin thinking about transitional justice in Canada by focusing on the apologies offered by the Canadian government and the churches of Canada.

  1. What is an apology, and what can it accomplish?
  2. In what ways can apologies help a society move toward a more peaceful future?
  3. Is it enough to say you are sorry? What besides apologies might be needed in a process of reconciling past injustices?

This chapter is from the Apologies section of Stolen Lives and includes:

  • 3 readings
  • Connection questions

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. . . . We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. –United Church Apology to First Nations, 1986 1

What are the ways in which a government can redress its oppressive actions against its own people? This question has been the subject of many discussions in the aftermath of episodes of mass violation of human rights and genocides . In some cases, such as the Holocaust, the international community set up a legal process to try the perpetrators in court. In other places, such as Chile, the government set up national commissions to investigate the crimes committed by former dictators and offer reparations to the victims.

Often included in this process, which is called transitional justice, are apologies and truth and reconciliation commissions (the subject of the next chapter). The goals of these elements in transitional justice are not only to shed light on past crimes and, in some cases, to sentence perpetrators of these crimes but also to help the groups involved in the conflict move on to more peaceful futures.

In 1969, the Trudeau government declared a new policy known as the White Paper. (For more on the policy, see Chapter 9.) The policy sought to do away with all the treaties and agreements with the  First Nations groups in Canada, beginning with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and integrate members of these groups as ordinary Canadians, thereby ignoring their legally recognized rights to cultural autonomy and self-government under the treaties and the Royal Proclamation. 2 The federal government soon faced growing opposition to this policy and was forced to withdraw the policy paper. Also, in the 1970s and early 1980s, numerous Supreme Court cases and agreements upheld some of the land rights and treaties First Nations had signed with the government decades before. 3

Although the United Church responded first and apologized in 1986 for its role in the operation of the residential schools, the schools and their tragic effects on their students went unacknowledged by the leadership of the main bodies running them: the Catholic orders and the Anglican Church. Both were slow to respond to the changing tide, and, concerned about the legal and financial consequences of any admission of wrongdoing, they remained silent.

But a shocking testimony given in October of 1990 shattered the silence in which the abuse in residential schools was shrouded. Phil Fontaine, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, decided to speak up about his experience in a residential school in Fort Alexander. On national television, the soft-spoken chief reported on a meeting with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Boniface (Manitoba) during which he described widespread physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in the residential schools and demanded a thorough inquiry. 4 He called for the church to set up a committee to investigate allegations of the sexual misconduct of its clergy. 5 This was not the first time such allegations had surfaced (the topic was sometimes discussed in private conversations between former students of the residential schools). But this time, the repercussions were different. The media picked up Fontaine’s story, and it was featured in many major media outlets. A flood of confessions followed, and the stories of many abused students, referred to since as survivors , came to light. Soon the churches were forced to acknowledge their actions in the past. Cautiously, some say even reluctantly, they offered their apologies.

  • 1 “Apology to First Nations Peoples (1986),” United Church of Canada website, accessed November 17, 2014.
  • genocides genocides: In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe the intentional and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. Genocide stems from the Greek word genos, which means “race,” and cide, which means “to destroy.” It was legally defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (the Genocide Convention). When the Canadian government selectively ratified the Genocide Convention in 1952, it excluded crucial elements of the convention. Many indigenous leaders, activists, and politicians have publicly called on the Canadian government to recognize the Indian Residential Schools system as genocide.
  • truth and reconciliation commissions truth and reconciliation commissions: Truth and reconciliation com- missions have become commonplace since the 1970s. They reflect a global trend of paying greater attention to mass violations of human rights. Most of a commission’s work is focused on crimes carried out by a government against its own citizens. Since the 1970s, there have been at least 40 truth and reconciliation commissions established worldwide, and some are still active today. Truth commissions involve a multifaceted process designed to help victims overcome historical injustice and trauma and reconcile with those who harmed them. Part of what experts call transitional justice, a truth and reconciliation commissions typically includes the elements of truth-seeking, justice, and reconciliation. Established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada’s commission began collecting survivor testimonies and related historical information in 2010. In an effort to make this information public, the commission’s archive was opened in 2014. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, on June 3, 2015.
  • treaties treaties: A treaty is a legally binding agreement between two sovereign nations. In Canada, various treaties between First Nations and the British Crown have been signed over the decades. The intent of many treaty agreements was to initiate a system in which First Nations peoples would share the land with the settler society but retain their autonomy and inherent rights to land and resources.
  • First Nations First Nations: First Nations have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years. Today, the term refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so. These nations enjoy a richness and diversity of identity, culture, and customs. Many view North America as their traditional homeland and do not recognize aspects of US and Canadian sovereignty. Alongside the Métis and Inuit Peoples, First Nations are part of a larger grouping officially called the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
  • 2 According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), “Aboriginal visions of self-government are as varied as their traditions, circumstances, and aspirations. Scores of detailed proposals for self-government have been drawn up by Aboriginal Peoples across Canada. The Commission identified [several] models, each with many possible variations. These models are all realistic and workable in the framework of the Canadian federation.” See “Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,” Canadian Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development website, accessed March 19, 2015.
  • 3 Alan D. McMillan and Eldon Yellowhorn, First Peoples in Canada (Madeira Park, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 2013), 323–326.
  • 4 “Phil Fontaine’s Shocking Testimony of Sexual Abuse,” CBC Digital Archives, accessed November 17, 2014.
  • 5Eric Taylor Woods, The Anglican Church of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools: A Meaning-Centred Analysis of the Long Road to Apology (dissertation, London School of Economics, 2012), 72–75.
  • survivors survivors: The term survivors was first used to refer to individuals who lived through the Holocaust and other genocides; many believe residential school students share similar symptoms with other survivors, including emotional detachment, guilt, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. First used in the 1990s in the discussion of the experiences of indigenous students in the residential schools system, the term also refers to former students of these schools, individuals who suffered neglect and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their supposed teachers and instructors.

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