On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the harm inflicted by these schools on their students. The gesture is part of a larger compensation project undertaken in 2005 called the Common Experience Payments through which former students may receive $10,000 plus an additional $3,000 Canadian for each school year attended. Currently 86,000 students are eligible for compensation. Harper condemned past governments for failing to protect the aboriginal peoples of Canada and their insistence on the inferiority of native cultures and practices. He further recognized that such policies of induced assimilation have no place in a country that respects the diversities of its people.
Beginning in the 19th century, Canada embarked on a mission to “kill the Indian in the child” by forcing aboriginal children to be separated from their families and attend residential schools. Children often began their schooling at the age of five and attended school for ten months out of the year. Canada’s national mission was to teach native children English to enable them to read the Bible, and adopt Christian ideas and morals. The ultimate goal was to prolong this education plan until aboriginals were completely assimilated into a homogenous Canadian society.
As all aboriginals were considered “wards of the state,” adults had no say in whether or not their children attended these schools until the 1950s, when they were finally given the option. After the 1950s, many parents continued sending their children to these schools as they perceived this as their only possible decision after years of being taught that these institutions provided the best form of education. However, children who attended residential schools lost touch with their culture, language, family, and heritage. Upon returning to their reserves, most of these children felt they no longer belonged to the community, further distancing them from their authentic identities. Children were forced to correspond with their parents in English, most of whom could not respond because they could not understand the language. Living conditions were extremely poor for the children, whose labor was used to help maintain the schools. According to current government investigation, many of these children fell victim to rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. High levels of alcoholism and suicide among aboriginals is commonly attributed to these abuses.
For many, no amount of money or apologies will make up for the years of abuse experienced by the original inhabitants of Canada. However, Harper’s apology is considered to be an essential first step towards assuming greater responsibility for the country’s past mistakes and helping the country’s original population to be part of Canada, in their own way.