Prime minister apologizes to native Canadians
By ROB GILLIESAssociated Press
June 11, 2008
OTTAWA (AP) — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is publicly apologizing to native Canadians who were taken from their families and forced to attend state-funded schools aimed at assimilating them.
Harper says the treatment of children at the schools is a sad chapter in Canadian history.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Many suffered physical and sexual abuse.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
OTTAWA (AP) — Michael Cachagee was 4 years old when he was taken from his parents and forced to attend a state-funded school aimed at stripping him of his aboriginal culture.
"The intent was to destroy the Indian," Cachagee said of the decades-long government policy.
On Wednesday, Cachagee and more than 80,000 surviving students will receive a public apology delivered in Parliament by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
At least 200 former students have been invited to Ottawa to witness what native leaders call a pivotal moment for Canada's more than 1 million aboriginals, who today remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools, where many suffered physical and sexual abuse, as part of a program to integrate them into Canadian society.
"Aboriginal Canadians have been waiting for a very long time to hear an apology from the Parliament of Canada," Harper told lawmakers a day before the apology.
Canada's Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said it would be a respectful and sincere recognition of widespread cultural devastation, as well as the physical trauma and sexual abuse, that continues to plague generations to this day.
The aboriginals say they are hoping it will be heartfelt.
"If it's just a hollow and shallow apology he might as well get one of the pages to do it," said Cachagee, who will have a seat on the floor of the House of Commons to hear it.
Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, agreed that if the apology is sincere and complete it would go a long way toward repairing the relationship between aboriginals and the rest of Canada.
"The fact that we are going to be there on the floor to witness this first hand, it's quite a moment," Fontaine told The Associated Press. "This is not just about survivors, this is about Canada coming to terms with its past and maturing as a nation."
The apology comes just months after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar gesture to the so-called Stolen Generations — thousands of the continent's Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.
But Canada has gone a step farther, offering those who were taken from their families compensation for the years they attended the residential schools. The offer was part of a lawsuit settlement.
Cachagee spent 12 1/2 years at three different schools in Canada beginning in 1944.
"I was beaten. I was put in tubs of hot water. I suffered great pains of hunger. I was force fed rotten food. They called me all kinds of names," he said.
The federal government admitted 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs.
That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indian leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
Fontaine was one of the first to go public with his past experiences of physical and sexual abuse.
"All kinds of abuse was inflicted on innocent children," Fontaine said. "There are thousands of these stories, all of them true. I think it's important to acknowledge that."
Fontaine said the prime minister's apology should mention all of the injustices done to Canadian aboriginals, who didn't have the right to vote until 1960.
Fontaine said he's been told the apology will incorporate much of what they requested and said framed copies of the apology will be handed out.
In 1998, Canada's former Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart expressed "profound regret" for the establishment of residential schools, but aboriginals didn't consider it sufficient in detail or substance.
Aboriginals set a sacred fire and conducted a ceremony at sunrise near Parliament to mark Harper's apology. More than 100 people gathered for a ceremony at the site of a former residential school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, on Canada's east coast.
Television screens are being set up at locations across Canada so the event can be watched live. The House of Commons plans to put aside all other business for the apology.
In addition to the apology, a truth and reconciliation commission will examine government policy and take testimony from survivors.
The commission was created as part of a $4.9 billion class action settlement in 2006 — the largest in Canadian history — between the government and churches and the surviving students. About $59 million will fund the commission.
Also under the settlement, students who attended residential schools are eligible to receive $9,800 for their first they attended one of the schools and $2,900 for every year after. Victims of physical and sexual abuse are eligible for additional funds.
Aboriginal Judge Harry LaForme will oversee the commission and will eventually travel across the country to hear stories from former students, teachers and others. The goal is to give survivors a forum to tell their stories and educate Canadians about a grim period in the country's history.