OTTAWA (CP) – The House of Commons stood as one to collectively apologize for the sad legacy of native residential schools, but don’t expect to hear the prime minister say he’s sorry.
That’s because a Liberal motion that passed 257-0 on Tuesday is largely symbolic.
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice says a formal apology from the Conservative government is likely years away – if it comes at all.
He made a clear distinction between what happens in the Commons and the obligations of the “executive branch” of cabinet ministers.
Prentice says his main obligation now is to implement a compensation deal worth well over $2 billion. The offer to about 80,000 former residential school students is expected to be finalized by September, settling one of the largest and most complex lawsuits in Canadian history.
It does not include an apology, although one was promised by the former Liberal government that initially crafted the deal.
“We’re in the midst of the implementation of (the agreement),” Prentice said Tuesday outside the Commons. “I think that’s an important consideration that someone in my position as minister needs to be cognizant of.”
Prentice says that doesn’t mean an apology from the prime minister is being stalled to avoid legal snags. Rather, it’s important that Canadians hear the full story about residential schools first.
Ottawa is planning a $60-million, five-year truth and reconciliation commission that will travel Canada hearing stories about the echoing impact of the now-defunct institutions.
Prentice cited a similar process to deal with South Africa’s painful era of apartheid. At the end of it, an apology from the head of state was recommended, he said.
Many surviving students say an apology from the prime minister is more important than receiving a cheque.
Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was one of the first public figures to openly talk about his own damaging experience.
“Those of us who were personally abused, as well as those who suffered intergenerational effects of abuse, deserve the fullest, most sincere, and complete apology from the representatives of the Canadian people.
“We expect that the prime minister of Canada will apologize in a timely fashion and in an appropriate public ceremony so that this matter can finally be put behind us.”
Liberal MP Gary Merasty says survivors shouldn’t have to wait.
Widespread abuse, cultural loss and even death in the church-run schools has been well documented, he said in an interview.
Any more delay is “very irresponsible.” Several elderly and sick former students die each month.
Merasty, who put forward the motion calling on the Commons to apologize, is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. His grandfather tried to hide Merasty’s mother from federal authorities who eventually forced her to attend a residential school for three years.
Merasty has lambasted Prentice for recently saying residential schools were primarily meant “to educate” native children. In fact, they were an acknowledged tool of assimilation to “Christianize” aboriginal people, Merasty says.
“You don’t need the truth and reconciliation commission to finish in order to consider giving an apology.”
In fact, there’s a risk the process “will be consumed with anger at the government for the denial and the attempt to reshape historical memory to diminish and demean what actually happened.”
The former Liberal government acknowledged in 1998 that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant for much of the last century.
Many native languages have never recovered from school policies that harshly punished children for speaking them. Continuing struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, sexual dysfunction and domestic violence are blamed in part on the social havoc wreaked by residential schools.
The former Liberal government stopped short of apologizing, but offered a statement of reconciliation that opened a floodgate of lawsuits.
About 150,000 students suffered widespread abuse, cultural losses and even death at the church-run institutions. Archival records also show that students died of tuberculosis at an alarming rate after the schools opened in the late 1800s.
“There’s absolutely enough information in place now that warrants an apology,” says Darcy Merkur of the Toronto law firm Thomson Rogers. Its coalition of lawyers from across Canada spearheaded the class-action lawsuit that spurred the federal compensation deal.
“It would be welcome to have an apology immediately following the implementation of the settlement.”
That said, testimony collected by the truth and reconciliation commission may well merit “an expansion of that apology.”