OTTAWA – In the bright afternoon sun, the survivors of residential schools converged on Parliament Hill, some in sleek modern suits accented with silver and turquoise, others in silkscreened T-shirts. Women wore traditional regalia: woven hats, appliquéd capes or buckskin dresses heavy with quillwork.
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl’s announcement of an apology came as a surprise – a year after predecessor Jim Prentice dismissed the possibility. There was little consultation between native groups and the government beforehand, and many who came were concerned that a carelessly made apology would do more harm than good.
Joseph Maud, an Ojibway from Skownan, Manitoba, pointed out, “We’ve been wanting to hear this for years. People are going to be skeptical. But this is a new day, it’s a new beginning. There’s hope.”
Hundreds, patient but apprehensive, some visibly fragile, waited in the sun as security checks slowly proceeded on the other side of the Parliament Building doors. Inside, they stood for another hour waiting for the visitors’ galleries to open.
Soon the sound of drumming began to thunder through the stone halls. Pausing as he fetched chairs for waiting elders, one security guard said in wonder, “This is the first time I’ve heard drums in this building, and I’ve worked here for 20 years.”
The drumming vibrated through the building until a call of “All quiet!” signalled that Parliament was about to be seated. The speaker’s mace, a giant, glittering gold-coloured lollipop, was silently carried through the hallway by half a dozen men in livery and tri?corne hats.
To follow Aboriginal drumming with the quaint British ceremony felt like the dawning of a new national protocol, the idea of consensus-?building for the good of all, the kind of process central to the First Nations democracies.
When a visibly weary Prime Minister stated unequivocally that the “policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country,” applause and drumming flowed, another joyous break with parliamentary protocol.
Later, as the crowd began to file out of the Commons, one group of First Nations women beckoned native and non-?native people to join in a large circle on the lawn, where all exchanged hugs. “I never, ever thought I would see this day,” says Alice Blondin, a Dene survivor. “This is the greatest day of my life.”A happy Phil Fontaine collected hugs. Aline Fontaine, the AFN chief’s niece, called the apology “a significant event for the upcoming generation.”
Jackie Fletcher, one of the counsellors on hand for survivors, says the apology “has done wonders for lots of people already. It’s closure. It repairs their hearts because people across Canada watched today. And when that happens, you reach a critical mass and the mindset changes.”
But not all survivors feel the same way after more than a decade of government delays. Many survivors didn’t receive full compensation because of missing residential school records. Thousands more did not live to see this day.
Survivors emphasized, “I hope it’s the start of something, not the end of something.”
Much remains to be done. Aboriginal communities still lose far too many children to children’s aid societies. Canada has not signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Said Quebec Native Women’s Association president Ellen Gabriel, “Let’s start putting the same kind of money behind Aboriginal languages as they do to the French and English languages. Let’s really forge ahead in a sincere manner.”