Are Apologies Enough? | Facing History & Ourselves
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Are Apologies Enough?

Consider two Indigenous leaders' reflections on the shortcomings of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's public apology in achieving movement toward justice and reconciliation.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

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English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA


  • History
  • Culture & Identity
  • Human & Civil Rights

Prime Minister Harper’s apology was, by and large, well received by the representatives of the First Nations , Métis , and Inuit who attended the joint session. They viewed it as an important symbolic act of acknowledgement and a step toward restoring faith between the groups. The apology was a symbolic act on a grand scale. Many who worked for years with the hope of hearing an apology felt that it might have been the beginning of a new era. Private Indigenous citizens also reacted to the apology, and their responses varied from awe to confusion, and from acceptance to apprehension. 1

While many among the public were gratified when Prime Minister Harper delivered the government’s apology, some Indigenous leaders thought that it fell short of what they hoped to hear. Lynda Gray was the executive director of the Urban Native Youth Association at the time. She wrote:

I can only imagine how meaningful the apology would have been to the aboriginal community if he had chosen to walk the walk instead of talk the talk of reconciliation. Some of the important things that the prime minister chose not to share with Canadians include the destruction of the cultural and spiritual traditions that would have helped our communities to recover from the residential-school experiences and the learned negative behaviours of violence, women-hating, homophobia, and elder abuse . . . [as well as] Canada’s refusal to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 2

. . . Research reports such as the Cedar Project—historical trauma, sexual abuse, and HIV risk among young aboriginal people who use injection and non-injection drugs in two Canadian cities—clearly show the link of the ongoing multigenerational effects of the residential-school experience on our young people. . . . Prime Minister Harper acknowledges the ongoing effects of the residential-school experience but has not made any meaningful commitment to foster positive change, especially for our young people. . . . As many have stated, it will take much more than an apology to help our communities move beyond the dark times that many of us are facing as a direct result of the residential-school experience. 3

Thohahoken Michael Doxtater is the director of the Indigenous Education Project at McGill University. He posted the following response:

Indigenous people seek remedies to a long list of injustices that go far beyond the residential schools’ direct and collateral victims addressed in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology this week.

The closing of the residential-school door leads down a hallway lined with other doors most Indians know about. The partnership now involves walking down that hallway together.

My grandmother, Belva, my mother, June, and my older sisters Frances, Lynda and Lillian have more than 100 descendants. . . . Whether my relatives went to residential school or


schools, we all received an Indian Affairs education that tried to extinguish the Indian in us. . . .

Was the apology a show? Aimed only at the residential schools issue, was Canada saying, “We know you feel bad because one of our family burned down your house . . . but we’re only paying for the windows?”

Canada constantly flaunts the $2 billion it has spent on residential-school payouts. The apology leads Canadians to continue to believe they are actually paying the bill.

For example, the same day the Conservative government was apologizing to aboriginals, Conservative MP Pierre Poilièvre told a radio audience in Ottawa that Canada has spent a “tremendous amount of money”—$10 billion in its 2007–08 budget with another $4 billion for the apology.

He also said Indians needed to learn about “hard work.”

What the average Canadian heard is a message about how a large burden has fallen on the Canadian taxpayer to pay for native affairs.

For all that, the statement did make remarkable concessions.

First, Canada recognizes that collateral victims of residential schools are now admitted to the dialogue about reparations. Medical, social, and mental research provides evidence on the impact of the transmission of intergenerational trauma.

Second, the admission that “it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes” has implications in international law. The 1948 UN Genocide Conventions prohibit such forcible removal.

Third, Canada has ended its Indian termination policy. . . . Harper said early in Canada’s apology that “this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.”

Fourth, Harper’s benediction returns Canada to foundational principles between the Crown and Indigenous peoples formed in our collective memory. “God bless you all, and God bless our land,” he said invoking God and country . . .

Other issues remain. There’s the uninformed sterilization of native girls up into the 1980s. And the sorry inventory of conditions on reserves where disease, drinking water, housing and intergenerational transmission of trauma create enormous social problems. In the 1980s, an Indian Affairs


implementation report said Canada owed Indigenous people for land, resource, and treaty obligations that amounted to $11.5 trillion. Across the continent, vast tracts like the Great Lakes watershed have underlying title retained by Indigenous people whose communities are treaty-based.

I met my cousins Mariah and Maryanne for supper. They asked me if I’d applied for any of the residential-school settlement money. They said they were getting $35,000. “I’m going to get a new car,” Maryanne said. “I already got one,” said Mariah.

“Do you feel healed?” I asked. They both laughed. So did I. 4

Connection Questions

  1. What specific concerns do Lynda Gray and Thohahoken Michael Doxtater raise about Harper’s apology? What else might the Indigenous people have wished Harper had said?
  2. What might Thohahoken Michael Doxtater be saying in this statement: “We know you feel bad because one of our family burned down your house . . . but we’re only paying for the windows”?
  3. What can an apology accomplish as a means of moving toward justice and reconciliation? What else needs to happen?
  • First NationsFirst 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.
  • MétisMétis: The term broadly describes descendants of mixed European and First Nations ancestry. In a narrow sense, Métis refers only to the descendants of First Nations people and French settlers in Manitoba. The history of the Métis reflects the intermingling of their different ways of life during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North American fur trade. Eventually, these descendants developed distinct language, culture, and traditions.
  • InuitInuit: The term Inuit refers broadly to the Indigenous population of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Inuit means “people,” and the language they speak in the Canadian Arctic is called Inuktitut. For centuries, these communities have relied on their natural resources, strong leaders, and innovative tools and skills to survive in the Arctic north. Today, the Inuit communities of Canada live in the Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland, and the region is divided into four territories.
  • 1“Reactions to Harper’s Apology,” Wawatay News Online, June 26, 2008, accessed July 14, 2014.
  • 2Canada changed its status in May 2016 from objector to adopter.
  • 3Lynda Gray, “Why Silence Greeted Stephen Harper’s Residential School Apology,” The Georgia Straight, June 12, 2008, accessed November 17, 2014.
  • on-reserveon-reserve: Since the beginning of the reserve system in the 1830s, many First Nations people have resided on reserves in Canada. Historically, reserves served as “social laboratories” where First Nations inhabitants were to become productive, “civilized,” Christianized, and assimilated into the settlers’ ways of life. There is a growing population of people who live “off-reserve” in urban or simply non-reserve locations. Over the years, many reserves have transitioned into relatively autonomous self-governed communities. The most recent Canadian census reveals that just over 50% of First Nations individuals registered as Status Indians reside off-reserve.
  • treatytreaty: 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. 
  • 4Thohahoken Michael Doxtater, “When it comes to Harper’s apology, words are not enough,” The Gazette (Montreal), June 14, 2008.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Are Apologies Enough?," last updated September 20, 2019.

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