Residential schools: Sorry excuse for an apology

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will make an official apology on behalf of the government for the horrific abuse suffered by victims of Canada's residential school system.

Harper will make the apology in the House of Commons on June 11, contradicting earlier accounts from then Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice that a public apology was "years away."

While it is good to see the government showing some sort of accountability to the extreme genocide they have inflicted on Aboriginal peoples, I have to wonder if Harper even really knows what he's apologizing for.

Because his government has, so far:

    âe¢ Refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, making Canada an international human rights laughing stock.

    âe¢ Cut the Status of Women, which included major funding losses for the Sisters in Spirit Initiative that advocated for victims of violence at the Native Women's Association of Canada, their largest contribution agreement.

    âe¢ Thrown out the Kelowna Accord, which, say what you will about it, was the first time the government actually asked Aboriginal people to be at the same table and collectively make decisions for ourselves.

    âe¢ Done nothing to help our people protect our own land and has silently watched our leaders be thrown in jail, from the KI Six in Northern Ontario to Mohawk territory to the tar sands in Alberta, etc. Twenty per cent of inmates in Canada are Aboriginal, while we only make up roughly three per cent of the population.

And the list goes on âe¦

Australia made the same move this past February when Prime Minister Rudd presented the apology to Indigenous Australians from the assimilative Stolen Generations as a motion to be voted on by the House, which some called "too little, too late."

Government apologies are in themselves an interesting conundrum. Referencing the Chinese head-tax compensation, activist Thea Lim points out:

"The residential schools apology sounds pretty similar: on paper, yeah, great news that the government is apologizing and acknowledging something horrible and disgusting. But when you actually look at the numbers, the apology is pretty ... hollow. For example, Harper compensated head tax survivors or widows with $20,000 between 400 people. The children of head tax survivors were not eligible for payments, and since head tax ended in 1923 you can imagine that few of the people who actually paid head tax are still alive, though their children (and grandchildren) who were deeply affected by it are. They don't get anything though."

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) is not too far off. Created as a result of the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada, it contains the Common Experience Payment (CEP), which "recognizes the experience of living at an Indian Residential School." However the stipulations of being eligible and actually receiving any form of compensation are baffling: from the fact that you had to be a living survivor on May 30, 2005 (so if you are a family member of one of the deceased and endured intergenerational trauma, you get nothing) to the tiered level of payment, $10,000 for the first year, $3,000 each subsequent year (so if the worst abuse you suffered was in year 12, too bad).

More than 90 per cent of Aboriginal people today are affected by the residential school system on some level; the last of these schools closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. Many individuals and families are starting to come to terms with all the abuse, but we still have a long way to go, which will no doubt go past the September 2011 application deadline for the CEP.

While there have been developments of truth and healing groups, it is essential that those that are being led and run by the actual Aboriginal survivors and their families themselves, so that they can be supported and take centre stage nationally. Fully respecting what it means to be an ally in this process and giving voice to the people who actually went to residential school is something I think many people need to reflect on.

So is an apology in order? Absolutely. Does the Conservative government really understand why they are making it? I think not.

Even for starters, it's going to take much more than an apology.

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