Although I was greatly surprised at the length and depth to which Prime Minister Stephen Harper went in his apology to residential-school survivors, I was also dismayed by the things that were blatantly absent. It was clear that if Harper had consulted the other three party leaders who were elected by voters to represent their interests as Canadians, his apology would have been much closer to what it needed to be.
This was made clear by the applause that the other leaders garnered and the silence that followed Harper’s speech in many community venues across the country. The silence was indicative of what was lacking and how much more needs to be done before survivors and their descendants can applaud the efforts of the government of Canada.
Even the Aboriginal leaders who were the honoured guests were stunned into near silence by what I can only assume were their own family connections to the overwhelming pain that arose during the day. At a time when the prime minister could have demonstrated a true commitment to forging a new relationship with aboriginal people, he chose not to work with their leaders or residential-school survivors to develop the apology.
I can only imagine how meaningful the apology would have been to the aboriginal community if he had chosen to walk the walk instead of talk the talk of reconciliation.
Some of the important things that the prime minister chose not to share with Canadians include the destruction of the cultural and spiritual traditions that would have helped our communities to recover from the residential-school experiences and the learned negative behaviours of violence, women-hating, homophobia, and elder abuse.
While the other party leaders filled in many of the gaps—including the importance of what happens next, Canada’s refusal to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the ongoing intergenerational effects, and the continued racist attitudes that see our children being taken into government “care” at alarming rates—three of the most important things were not mentioned by anyone.
These are: the importance of providing meaningful opportunities for our youth, who make up more than 60 percent of the aboriginal population; the spiritual abuse that took place; and the lack of education in these so-called schools.
Few people realize the broader effects that the residential-school experience has had on our communities beyond the overwhelming destruction of our families and individual lives. If the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government had not destroyed or severely compromised the systems that our ancestors had developed in the areas of negotiating, governance, caring for the land, and child-rearing, we would not be facing many of the broader community issues that we are today.
Many of these issues have forced the migration of many of our people away from their homelands and into the urban setting. Statistics Canada reports that more than 60 percent of the aboriginal community now lives in urban settings.
After the apology, I was honoured to attend student celebrations at Vancouver’s two alternate schools. Although I was so proud to see these young people in school, I was also struck by the realization that the need for alternate schools stems directly from the residential-school experience.
I believe that the main reasons our youth do not do well academically or socially in mainstream schools is because of the lack of respect in our communities for education. This is due to the learned fear of educational institutions, the social issues we face that stem from Canadian assimilation policies, and the racism that persists throughout this country as nonaboriginal people judge us for those social issues we are forced to overcome due to all of the external forces that led to them.
Research reports such as the Cedar Project—historical trauma, sexual abuse, and HIV risk among young aboriginal people who use injection and noninjection drugs in two Canadian cities—clearly show the link of the ongoing multigenerational effects of the residential-school experience on our young people. So when we talk about truth and reconciliation, we must remember to include the effects that are still being experienced by most of our young people.
Though I hope this is the dawn of a new day for Canadian and aboriginal relations, I am reminded of the six-year struggle we have faced to build a Native youth centre in Vancouver. Prime Minister Harper acknowledges the ongoing effects of the residential-school experience but has not made any meaningful commitment to foster positive change, especially for our young people.
Although we have secured $6 million, including the land, the government of Canada and the Province of B.C. have yet to make any meaningful contribution to this important youth-led initiative that has overwhelming community support and would help youth to make meaningful changes in their lives.
As many have stated, it will take much more than an apology to help our communities move beyond the dark times that many of us are facing as a direct result of the residential-school experience.
Lynda Gray is the executive director of the Urban Native Youth Association.