Aboriginal Child Abuse in Residential Schools: An Apology

by Darlene Barriere - Webmaster
(Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada)


Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, last week took an historic step by apologizing to aboriginal people for government action taken over the course of 150 years, when governments of the day forcibly remove aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in federally financed residential schools where they were violated and abused in every possible way.


Emotional, sexual and physical abuse at the church-run residential schools was rampant, and has finally been conceded to by the federal government. Governments have recognized the abuse and the effects the abuse had on aboriginal people, their families and their entire communities for 10 years, but no Prime Minister had ever apologized.

Select native leaders were given an invitation to sit on the floor of the House of Commons just a few feet from Prime Minister Harper as he delivered this historic official apology to the aboriginal people of Canada.

Native people gathered at various locations across Canada to witness the apology. The pain in their faces was obvious to all who watched the televised apology. Tears of sorrow, grief beyond any comprehension except from those who endured vicious assaults of every kind, flowed uncontrollably.

After the apology, reaction among the aboriginal people was mixed. Some felt a sense of relief and expressed a desire to move forward. Others conveyed discontent, stating that Stephen Harper had not been sincere in his apology and that his apology could not erase 150 years of abuse.

My comments: I can appreciate why so many did not find Prime Minister Harper's words sincere. He missed an opportunity to truly address what these aboriginal people lived; and further, he missed the opportunity to tell every Canadian of the life-long effects the mistreatment had on the aboriginal people.

There were several areas I felt the Prime Minister's apology could have improved upon...

Our Prime Minister read from his notes. Heartfelt apologies should not be openly read. While I didn't expect him to remember every word, I did expect his words to ring authentic. The use of a teleprompter might have set the stage for a more genuine act of contrition. But even a teleprompter wouldn't have infused our Prime Minister's apology with the sincerity it so woefully lacked.

Rather than speak to the people he was apologizing to, he instead addressed the parliamentary audience, looking left and right as he spoke. He should have looked directly into the camera to reflect that he was addressing all the aboriginal people across the nation.

Members of Cabinet and backbenchers alike were clapping each and every time our Prime Minister made an apology. I believe this pat-on-the-back-clapping showed disrespect to the aboriginal people he was supposed to be addressing; Members of Cabinet and backbenchers should have been instructed beforehand not to clap. And if this was an oversight, our nation's leader should have stopped in mid-stream and requested that members refrain from clapping as an act of respect toward the aboriginal people.

Prime Minister Harper made several statements that on the surface spoke to the effects the widespread abuse had on the children and people and communities, but I do not believe his words went far enough. For apologies to be received and perceived as genuine, they must be honest. They must contain within them, words that adequately address the severe effects that actions and inactions had on all who were affected. In short, the aboriginal people needed to know that our government understood the lifelong, and in some cases, everlasting effects that the unbridled abuse had on their people. And he should have personalized his words.

Allow me to elaborate...

Instead of Prime Minister Harper's impersonal quote: "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."

They needed to hear: When we separated your children from your rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, we stripped your children of their identities and we stole your languages and your traditions and your cultures. Our assimilation policy ultimately wiped out many of your traditions and cultures, some of which we made extinct over the course of time. This was an unforgiveable act. For the cultural genocide our policies led to, we apologize to each and every one of you.

Instead of: "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."

They needed to hear: When we separated you and your children from your families, we robbed you of any and all relationships with family—brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and grandparents and all extended family members and elders. When we separated you from your families, we deprived you of the ability to learn how to parent your own children, and their children, indeed, generations of your children. For heartlessly wrenching you from your families and from the opportunity to learn from your parents and elders and your extended families, we apologize to each and every one of you.

Instead of: "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."

They needed to hear: To you, the children we forcibly wrenched from your families and then forced into institutions to bear and witness horrendous daily emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect: we failed you. We were cruel, insensitive and treated you as less than human. The fact that we treated you and your families with such disregard is inexcusable; we should never have removed you from your homes. But the fact that we did this AND failed to keep you safe from harm after we DID is nothing short of indefensible. We did not put in place any controls to keep you safe from the people we put in charge; and as such, we were enablers of the abuse. We were every bit as responsible for the atrocities you suffered if we had been the ones personally inflicting the physical, sexual and emotional abuses upon you. For what we didn't do to protect you, for actions and inactions that led to generations of sorrow and pain, we are deeply sorry to each and every one of you.

They needed to hear: That even when the last of the residential schools finally closed, governments still did not acknowledge the atrocities and the effects of those atrocities that you and your families and your communities had so painfully endured. For shunning and stifling you, we apologize to each and every one of you.

And lastly, Stephen Harper did what I consider the ultimate sin, as apologies go: he asked the aboriginal people for forgiveness. His apology should never have included such a request. When he asked for forgiveness, Prime Minister Harper made the apology about the government, rather than about the people he was supposed to be apologizing to.

I realize that no apology, however heartfelt, however "personal" in its delivery, can ever mitigate the pain and suffering these aboriginal people endured. But if Stephen Harper had directed his apology to these people rather than at them, perhaps it would have been more widely accepted and received. I do hope that his effort, even though it did come across as less than sincere, will help at least some come to terms with the atrocities that are a part of Canada's sullied history, not for the government, but for themselves and their extended families, for their traditions and cultures, and for their future generations.

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Comments for Aboriginal Child Abuse in Residential Schools: An Apology

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Jun 18, 2008
Harper's apology
by: JWC

Darlene, your insight in this matter and others never ceases to amaze me. The way you have provided an in-depth analysis of Stephen Harper's apology speech leaves me to wonder if you come from a native background?? Your ability to point out that he should have been talking TO the people instead of AT them was very intuitive. Much of what you said was overlooked by my self, and I'm sure many others.

As a young man, I had an opportunity to interact with many aboriginal children attending these residential schools. They had a little league baseball team and played in the local district league, and were extremely competitive. I had no idea what these kids were going through. From what I have come to understand, playing baseball may have been one of the few enjoyable things these kids got to do.

As an 18 year old, I became involved in coaching little league teams. I had the misfortune of coaching against one of the priests employed at the residential school, and witnessed first hand the mistreatment this priest carried out on the members of his team. I now look back and have to ask, this priest acted so inappropriately in public, so what was he like behind the closed doors of that residential school? What did those poor children have to endure? What you wrote Darlene is probably as close as I'll ever get to knowing. I will now always look at aboriginal people with compassion and respect. I don't think I could have survived such horrendous abuse.

Jun 18, 2008
To JWC:
by: Darlene Barriere - Webmaster

I thank you for your kind words, JWC.

While I am not aboriginal, I am Metis. I am a descendant of Louis Riel (Cree) on my mother's side, through her father, both of whom were born with the last name Riel.

My mother did not attend a residential school when she was a child, and I do not know if her father did. Given the fact that in 1920, residential school attendance became mandatory for all aboriginal, native and Metis children, attendance must have been the case somewhere along the family tree. The "horrendous" abuse my own mother lived in her home at the hands of her mother, who not only hated "Indian" children, (even though they were her own) she taught them to hate all "Indians" and the traditions and culture. My mother's father sat idly by; he did nothing to stop the emotional and terrible physical abuse his wife was inflicting upon their children, including my mother.

My "insight" comes from having grown up in a home rife with physical and emotional abuse and neglect, at the hands of both my mother and my father. My mother learned the lessons her mother had taught her very well; she taught all 5 of her children to hate what we were. I was an adult before I came to understand how these lessons had tainted my own thinking.

I'm delighted to learn this article provided you with insight regarding your own experiences, JWC. I hope others will follow your example.

Darlene Barriere
Violence & Abuse Prevention Educator
Author: On My Own Terms, A Memoir

Jun 20, 2008
Right on
by: Anonymous

THAT would have been an apology worth listening to Darlene. I listened to Harper that day and I felt as so many others felt. It didn't seem sincere but I couldn't put my finger on why. After reading what you wrote I think I now understand why I felt this way and why so many others felt this way. Even still though I hope that Harper's words were enough to help all those poor people that had to live with the horrible effects.

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