Justin Trudeau has apologised to hundreds of indigenous peoples in Canada who were forcibly placed into a system of boarding schools that were rife with abuse, but some local leaders say the prime minister’s apology does not go far enough.
Trudeau apologised to the indigenous students who attended residential schools in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, on Canada‘s east coast, on Friday morning.
“Today, I humbly stand before you to offer a long overdue apology,” Trudeau said during a ceremony in the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“To all of you, we are sorry.”
About 150,000 indigenous children attended residential schools across Canada between the 1940s and late 1990s, when the last of the schools were closed.
Residential schools were created in an effort to assimilate indigenous children into white Canadian culture.
Students were neglected, separated from their families and communities, prevented from speaking their native languages and learning about their culture, and many endured severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Today, we apologize to former students of Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools and to the families, loved ones, and communities for the painful & tragic legacy these schools left behind: https://t.co/BKatosyFfM pic.twitter.com/PsJ30Zr6zj
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 24, 2017
“These are the hard truths that are part of Canada’s history. These are the hard truths we must confront as a society,” Trudeau said on Friday.
Speaking at the ceremony, Sarah Anala, a residential school survivor, said: “to have the strength to stay alive until today is a miracle”.
Anala said she hoped the apology would have an effect on younger generations.
“Maybe today our younger people, our grown children, our grandchildren, will finally understand what had happened to us. And maybe our tears will now be more dry than before,” she said.
Trudeau also apologised to the families, loved ones and communities “impacted by the tragic legacy of these schools” and to anyone who attended the schools but has since passed away.
“Sadly, not all former students are here with us today, having passed away without being able to hear this apology. We are sorry for not apologising sooner, for not righting this wrong before now. We honour their spirits and cherish their memories,” Trudeau said.
However, in a statement earlier this week, the Innu Nation said it would not accept the prime minister’s apology.
“Our elders are not ready to accept an apology that is made for such a small part of our experience,” Grand Chief Gregory Rich said in the statement, according to CBC News.
“Frankly, I don’t think Canada is truly ready to make an apology to Innu if it does not include recognition of other damages done to our people – I’m not satisfied that Canada understands yet what it has done to Innu and what it is still doing.”
Indigenous children are over-represented in Canada’s child welfare system: while Aboriginal children represented seven percent of all children in Canada in 2011, they accounted for 48 percent of all those in foster care.
In 2008, Stephen Harper, Canada’s then prime minister, apologised for the government’s role in the countrywide residential school system.
But survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador were excluded from that apology – and an accompanying settlement – because Ottawa said the schools were in operation before the province formally joined the rest of Canada in 1949.
Hundreds of Indigenous children were placed in residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador between 1949 and 1979.
The schools were run by International Grenfell Association, an agency that provided health, education and other services in the province, and the Moravian Church.
Last year, about 800 residential school survivors from the province reached a nearly $40m settlement with the federal government in a class-action lawsuit.
“Canada owe a fiduciary obligation to the students” who attended residential schools in the province, the lawsuit’s statement of claim stated, and “to protect them from any abuse, be it mental, emotional, physical, sexual or otherwise”.
“The vulnerable children at the School relied upon Canada, to their detriment.”
Toby Obed, a named plaintiff in that case, attended a residential school in Northwest River, Newfoundland, in the 1970s.
“This apology has been a long time in the making. Too long,” Obed said on Friday, his voice breaking several times during an emotional address.
“Canada has now accepted responsibility for all that we went through and Canadians must now commit to learn more about their own history.”
Obed said the government’s apology will allow survivors to finally begin to heal.
He added that he hoped it would lead to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada.
“There is so much work left to be done. But now together, we can start,” Obed said.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body entrusted with investigating the residential school system, concluded in 2015 that Canada had committed “cultural genocide” through the schools.
“Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program: it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide,” the commission said in its report.