Thursday, June 12, 2008

Canadian PM Apologizes to Aboriginal Peoples

Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples in the House of Commons in a broadcast that was carried live on CBC. Harper specifically apologized for government's policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their homes and placing them in residential schools from the late 19th Century up to the mid-1970s. Sexual and physical abuse was rampant in these schools and has significantly contributed to the alcoholism that plagues Native Canadians. It was not uncommon for Aboriginal children to be beaten when speaking in their native tongues. Harper said the policy was meant to "kill the Indian in the child."

Eleven prominent Aboriginal leaders were present for Harper's remarks, including Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, who himself was abused at a residential school. Fontaine was allowed to respond to Harper at the insistence of the opposition parties. Fontaine said Harper's statement represented a "new dawn" in relations between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples and called upon Aboriginal people "to put the pain behind us."

While the previous Liberal government provided Aboriginal peoples nearly $2 billion affected by the residential schools in 2005, this marks the first time the Canadian government formally apologized for the policy.

This isn't the first time Harper has made an apology to a group of people misteated by their own government. In 2006, Harper apologized and arranged a compensation package for Chinese Canadians who had to pay a "head tax" to get into Canada between 1885 and 1923.

As someone who grew up in Canada, I have long been bothered by the way Aboriginal Peoples have been treated. The fact a Canadian Prime Minister stood up in the House of Commons and said that it was wrong will go a long way in setting things right. The fact that Canada's top Aboriginal leader, himself a victim of the abuse, said he was ready to put the past behind him will also go a long way. The social conditions of Aboriginals won't improve overnight but perhaps in a generation things will have improved to the point where they are no longer marginalized in Canadian society.

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