Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is apologizing for the “incredibly harmful” government policies after an estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at a former Saskatchewan residential school site.
The discovery came just weeks after 215 unmarked burial sites were found at another former residential school site in Kamloops, sending shockwaves through the country and prompting renewed calls for action.
Speaking Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to take that action.
“Specifically to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future,” he said.
“That means recognizing the harms, the impacts, the inter-generational trauma, the cycles of challenges that far too many Indigenous peoples face in this country because of actions that the federal government and other partners deliberately and willingly undertook.”
Prime Minister Trudeau added that Canadians are “horrified and ashamed” of how Canada behaved.
But as Prime Minister Trudeau promises action to make things right, advocates are speaking out about what that accountability actually looks like – and it’s about more than just an apology, they say.
Apologies are meaningful for many people, according to Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and activist. But they lose meaning unless they’re coupled with action, she said.
“It goes beyond apologies. Apologies are important for those who need healing or closure,” Palmater said.
“But it’s also about providing whatever financial supports, human resources, equipment, and inter-jurisdictional cooperation that will be needed to identify, locate, assess and return these children home.”
After the remains of 215 children were found at a former B.C. residential school site, the government made $27 million available to Indigenous communities to find the loved ones who died at these institutions.
But the resources needed to find all these missing children goes beyond that lone dollar figure, Palmater said. She explained that any documents that can help find where these lost children have been buried must be made public.
“Every single document has to be accessible in order to properly identify children, know where they went, because not all graves are going to be known. There’s going to be some unknown locations known only to churches or government, for example,” she said.
Finding the missing children is just one part of the redress advocates say is required for achieving accountability for the wrongs of residential schools.
While the doors of the last residential school closed in 1996, the impacts continue to be felt in a number of ways — from the internalized shame taught in school and passed down to younger generations, to the ongoing separation of families in the foster care system, according to advocates.
Over half of the children in foster care are Indigenous, according to figures from the federal government. That’s despite Indigenous people making up just over seven per cent of the under-14 population in Canada.
“We know what happens when children go into foster care. We know that statistically they’re more likely to end up in youth corrections. They’re more likely to end up living on the streets. They’re more likely to end up murdered and missing. They’re less likely to get an education. They’re more likely to suffer violence,” said Palmater.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have both issued reports validating Palmater’s assertions.
“Compared to youth from the general population, youth from the child welfare system are also at much greater risk for becoming involved with the juvenile criminal justice system, a process referred to as the “child-welfare-to-prison pipeline,” the commission wrote.
“Because of racial disparities in the child welfare system, Indigenous and Black children may be disproportionately likely to experience these negative effects.”
Stopping this cycle would be one form of accountability, Palmater said.
“Why on earth would we continue residential schools in modern day practices while at the same time apologizing for residential schools? We actually have to stop the practice,” she said.
The “paternalistic” attitude the government takes towards Indigenous people is another legacy of these residential schools that must be quashed, advocates say.
The government has a tendency to drown Indigenous communities in paperwork when it comes to managing their own finances, according to the former Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Sheila North.
“It’s very degrading, now that I think about it, that process of Indigenous governments and leaders going to government. Every time they need something, they have to apply through a program. And then it’s still up to the government to say yes or no,” North said.
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