Albion Monitor /News

Canada Apologizes for Century of Native Assimilation Policy

by Mark Borrie

Acknowledges cultural damage done to the Native population
(IPS) OTTAWA -- The Canadian government has apologized to the country's 1.5 million Native people for decades of mistreatment that included attempts to stamp out their culture and assimilate Indians and mixed race people.

In a ceremony in Canada's Parliament building on Jan. 6, Native leaders and government ministers pledged to work together to try to heal the damage done to Native people and their culture. Indian leaders condemned the government for its 80-year program of taking children from native families and sending them to often abusive government-run schools.

During the colonial period, the 650 aboriginal nations in Canada were driven to reservations, usually in isolated, unproductive regions of the country. Native populations declined drastically until the 1940's, languages were lost and traditional ceremonies were outlawed.

Minister of Indian Affairs Jane Stewart read a "Statement of Reconciliation," that acknowledged the damage done to the Native population -- including the hanging of Louis Riel after he led a rebellion of Indian and mixed-race people in western Canada in 1885. But the government apology stopped short of pardoning Riel, something Native leaders have demanded for decades.

"The days of First Nations citizens as victims are over. We are a strong, resilient people and we are confident that we can move ahead and forge a new future for ourselves"
Stewart did, however, apologize for the government's assimilation policies.

"Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of aboriginal culture and values," she said. "As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices.

She added: "the time has come to state formally that the days of paternalism and disrespect are behind us and we are committed to changing the nature of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada."

For Phil Fontaine, leader the Assembly of First Nations, a coalition of nationwide Native groups, the apology paves the way for lasting peace between them and the Canadian government.

"This celebrates the beginning of a new era," Fontaine said. " It is a major step forward in our quest to be recognized as a distinct order of government in Canada."

With the apology, came a $250 million fund to redress the problems caused by the residential school policy. From the 1870's until the 1960's, the government took children from native homes and placed them in church-run boarding schools where many were physically abused by priests, nuns and ministers. The money will be spent on therapy and job skills training.

"It is appropriate to remember those who are victims of the colonial experience, in particular, the many survivors of the residential school system. You are a source of hope and inspiration to our present and future generations," Fontaine said to former residential school pupils at the ceremony in an opulent room of the Canadian legislative building.

Other tribal leaders said the money won't solve the endemic problems of alcoholism, racism and poverty that plague Canada's Natives. Even the $6 billion the Canadian government spends each year on programs has done little to help Indians live in acceptable housing and have decent education and health services.

Minister Stewart said the Canadian government wants to give Native people control over local government on reservation lands, health programs, education and job training. "This brings to a close the official policies of victimization of our peoples, and will allow us to move forward in our quest for equality and fairness in dealing with federal and provincial governments as equals," she said.

But Fontaine added negotiations must continue for help from the Canadian government to get tribes back on their feet.

"You can see that much work has been done. The government has committed itself to new resources, better infrastructure and much needed aid," Fontaine said. "But much more needs to be accomplished. The days of First Nations citizens as victims are over. We are a strong, resilient people and we are confident that we can move ahead and forge a new future for ourselves."

Not all Indian leaders were comfortable with the reconciliation statement.

Representatives of Inuit, native women's groups and Metis -- descendants of mixed blood between early French explorers and native tribes -- all said the apology was not strong enough. They criticized the statement, saying it did not refer to the wrongs done to their communities in enough detail and maintained that the money involved as reparations was insufficient.

Inuit and Metis leaders, who are not included in the Assembly of First Nations, also complained that Stewart's later statements did not mention specific programs for their peoples.

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Albion Monitor January 12, 1998 (

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