Stephen Harper (photo, from nationalpost.com), the Canadian prime minister, has apologised for forcing about 150,000 aboriginal children to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools, aimed at assimilating them, during more than one century.
He made the apology in parliament in Ottawa, in front of hundreds of ex-schoolchildren.
Initiated in the late 19th Century, most of the schools shut in the 1970s, even though some of them operated until the 1990s.
At the institutions, known as residential schools, accounts of physical and sexual abuse have also emerged. Most of the churches that ran the schools apologised in the 1980s and 1990s. And in February Australia apologised for a similar policy.
Aboriginal Canadians had been waiting “a very long time” for an apology said Mr Harper.
“I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.”
‘Abuse or neglect’
The base of the system was the assumption that “aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal”.
Stephen Harper went on : “We now recognise that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologise for failing to protect you.”
“The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.”
The Assembly of First Nations head Phil Fontaine, present with other aboriginal leaders in the chamber during the prime minister’s speech, quickly welcomed the apology
“We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history”, said Mr Fontaine, one of the first former schoolchildren to go public with his experiences of physical and sexual abuse at residential school.
“Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry”, he added.
Loosing touch with their parents
10 years ago the federal government acknowledged that in the schools, physical and sexual abuse was rampant.
Many schoolchildren recall losing touch with their parents and culture and being beaten for speaking their languages.
Aboriginals cited the legacy of the system as as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction among their people.
The apology is part of a C$2bn deal between the government, churches and the surviving former schoolchildren. They have begun receiving financial compensation for their suffering, under the agreement.
A truth and reconciliation commission has also been set up, which will be granted access to government and church records.
“All of us aboriginal people in some way have been impacted by the Indian residential school tragedy” said Justice Harry LaForme, chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.