Five years later – reflections on the apology to survivors of Indian residential schools

By Harley and Sue Eagle

On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology to the survivors of Indian residential schools. What did it mean then? And what does it mean now, five years later?

In reflecting on this, another Harper—Elijah Harper—comes to mind.  Last year, he was keynote speaker at a Peterborough conference called, “From Indian Residential Schools to Truth and Reconciliation.” Elijah Harper, known for stopping the Meech Lake Accord, shared his thoughts and observances about the procedure that was followed during the Prime Minister’s apology and the events that unfolded that day in 2008.

Elijah Harper, 1949-2013
Elijah Harper, 1949-2013

During the reading of the apology, Parliament was “in session” in that the Speaker of the House was present in the Speaker’s chair, and the Mace was in its place on the Clerk’s table, a ritual showing that the proceedings were official.  When visiting foreign dignitaries or heads of state speak in the House, the official parliamentary ritual dictates the Speaker to be in his chair and the Mace in its appropriate place. Upon the completion of Prime Minister Harper’s apology speech, however, when the Indigenous leaders got up to speak, Elijah Harper noted that the Speaker left his chair and the Mace was removed. For Elijah Harper,  a survivor of residential schools, as well as a former MLA and MP, who was well acquainted with parliamentary procedure and ritual, the message was clear:  Parliament was no longer in session. These Indigenous people were not respectfully acknowledged as leaders of Nations. For many of us who were witness to the apology, we missed this entirely.

It’s been five years since the apology, which was to be a “positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together…”  There have been some positive government and church responses – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, various healing funds, resources created. Yet for the most part, it’s been business as usual for government. The federal government has lacked appropriate engagement and consultation in the 2012 Omnibus Budget Bill which has had huge impacts on First Nations.  It continues to make significant funding cuts to First Nations organizations, and has done little to close the 30 percent funding gap between provincial and First Nations child welfare agencies.

An apology requires meaningful action to be sincere.  What non-Indigenous Canadians can do is to take the apology seriously and take part in expressions of reconciliation.  We can voice our concerns to government, to commit to learn about the history and educate others.  We can take part in relationship building initiatives, acknowledge the benefits we have received and continue to receive at the expense of Indigenous peoples regarding land.

Last month, Elijah Harper passed away at the age of 64.  His leadership, genius and brilliance will be missed.

Harley and Sue Eagle are co-coordinators of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Work.

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