June 20, 2008

Tears, applause greet Harper's apology

“Now is the time to get rid of the anger.”


Residential school survivors greeted Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology with both tears and applause at a ceremony in Iqaluit's cadet hall June 11.

Harper delivered the historic and long-awaited apology for decades of abuse at church-run, government-approved schools from the House of Commons in Ottawa as a dozen aboriginal leaders, including Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, looked on.

The attempts to wipe out aboriginal culture "were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal."

Janet Brewster, right, puts an arm around her mother Betty, while the two watch Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologize June 11 for the federal government's role in the residential school system. Hundreds of survivors and their families packed Iqaluit's cadet hall to view the historic apology.

"Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," Harper said, to a smattering of applause from more than 200 residential school survivors and their families in Iqaluit.

More than 150,000 Inuit, First Nation and Metis students passed through the residential school system. Thousands were sexually and physically abused and thousands more were punished for speaking their own languages.

Some elders wept, as staff from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which organized the pubic viewing of the Prime Minister's apology, passed out boxes of tissues.

"There's no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential school system to ever prevail again," Harper said.

"You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly."

"We are sorry."

Elder Alicie Joamie lights the qulliq before the start of a ceremony in Iqaluit marking the federal government's apology for the residential school system June 11. Hundreds gathered at the local Cadet Hall to watch the apology on a giant television screen.

When Harper finished speaking, applause built and spread throughout the room.

Opposition leader Stephane Dion, whose party governed Canada during most of the residential school era, acknowledged his party's responsibility for the system. And he encouraged aboriginals to speak their languages, learn their own cultures and "share in the bounty of this country."

"I'm sorry Canada tried to erase your identity and your culture," Dion said, also to applause from survivors gathered in the cadet hall.

All four federal party leaders spoke, followed by aboriginal leaders from across the country.

Jack Anawak, a former MP and a survivor of the notorious Joseph Bernier school in Chesterfield Inlet, was on Parliament Hill for the apology and said he admired the non-partisan nature of the event. Anawak accepts the apology and forgives the government.

"Now is the time to get rid of the anger," he said.

But at the same time, Anawak said he was transported back to his days as a scared nine-year old at Joseph Bernier school "looking at the government admitting that ‘we're going to make white people out of you.' It was very moving."

Anawak said survivors who've gone on to be successful in life, find that success feels fragile because the schools created an "ingrained feeling of inferiority."

"There is always that feeling of vulnerability," Anawak said.

Peter Irniq also attended Joeph Bernier school and suffered physical abuse at the hands of teachers and nuns.

He had input on the apology's content and was on the floor of the House of Commons while Harper spoke. Being there while the prime minister apologized was "awesome, scary, intimidating," he said.

Like Anawak, Irniq experienced flashbacks to his days in residential school, but he said he accepts the apology and hopes Inuit can now build a better relationship with the Government of Canada.

"I thought the apology was very good," he said. "It had everything I wanted to hear."

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was also on the floor of the House of Commons during the apology.

Speaking after the four federal party leaders, Simon addressed the Commons in both Inuktitut and English, and said she hoped the apology sparks an eventual improvement in the quality of life of aboriginal people in Canada.

"Let us not be lulled into an impression that when the sun rises tomorrow morning the pain and scars will miraculously be gone. They won't," she said. "But a new day has dawned, a new day heralded by a commitment to reconciliation, healing and building new relationships with aboriginal people."

Paul Kaludjak, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., also accepted the government's apology, saying it would help Inuit "move forward in our healing process."

"The apology will help restore the personal dignity that was lost. I regret that this apology did not come in time for all former residential school students to hear it. So many Inuit passed away before hearing this acknowledgment of their suffering," Kaludjak said in a statement.

And Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell also welcomed the apology.

"Today was a historic day," she said in a release. "It has been an emotional time for me as I felt the heavy responsibility of representing the many Inuit survivors who could not be here in [the House of Commons]."

INAC organized the Iqaluit viewing at the Cadet Hall, and also had a second private gathering for survivors who did not want to watch the apology in public.

But one Rankin Inlet woman blasted to Government of Nunavut for not giving time for government workers to watch the apology at a community gathering.

Johanne Coutu-Autut was also upset that no health workers were present at the Sinitarvik Hotel to support former students, and that there was no Inuktitut translation for elders.

"These elders were the parents of those children who were taken away from them months and years at a time...," she wrote in a letter to Nunatsiaq News. "This was a total lack of respect for them."