Prime Minister Harper’s apology was, by and large, well received by the representatives of the
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.
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:
. . . 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.
Thohahoken Michael Doxtater is the director of the Indigenous Education Project at McGill University. He posted the following response:
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.