By Mike Krebs. On June 11, 2008, Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada and leader of the Conservative Party, issued an “apology” for the residential school system that over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced through. The hype before and after the statement was enormous, with extensive coverage in all major media.
This event had a strong emotional and psychological impact on Indigenous survivors of residential schools all across Canada, who suffered attempted forced assimilation as well as countless acts of violence, rape, and abuse. Descendents of those subjected to this system were equally affected. People packed into community halls and similar venues on June 11 for what was bound to be an emotionally triggering day for survivors, regardless of their view towards the meaning of the “apology.” Some survivors reportedly felt that the statement was a step forward, while many were highly critical.
In trying to understand the responses of Indigenous people across Canada to this “apology,” it is first important to address what it did not do. It must be judged in terms of the ability of Indigenous people to move forward in the process of true healing, not just from the effects of the residential school system, but from the entire process of Canadian colonialism. In this framework, the deficiencies of the “apology” are much greater than any positive impact it could have.
A crime of genocide
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” —Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs and founder of the residential school system, 1920
“I don’t want to hear it. You know, you might as well send the janitor up to apologize…if it’s just empty words or a nicely written text.” — Michael Cachagee, survivor of Shingwauk Indian Residential School
If there is one thing that Mr. Harper’s “apology” provided that could be considered groundbreaking or new, it’s the idea that there can be crimes without criminals.
You would think offering an “apology” means taking some sort of accountability for the residential school system. But Harper’s statement acknowledges that what happened is a “mistake” without dealing with it as a crime, and without any sense of any individual accountability for it. It views the residential school system as only a mistake.
No discussion of the residential school system can be meaningful without acknowledging that this was an act of genocide. For those who value the importance of international law and the United Nations convention of genocide, let’s look at the UN definition itself as outlined in the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948”:
“Article 2. In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Arguably all five of these criteria apply to the residential school system and other aspects of the Canadian government’s colonization of Indigenous people. And there can be no argument that parts (b) and (e) apply, as a number of Indigenous writers have pointed out. It is important to note that guilt for this crime lies not only with the individuals who committed specific crimes against Indigenous people (i.e. sexual assault, physical violence, forced removal), but also with those who enacted the entire policy.
So even though Harper apologized for the residential schools as a “system,” it doesn’t absolve individuals who participated in the numerous criminal acts they committed. Yet, that is what Harper’s statement attempts to do by apologizing on behalf of “all Canadians,” deceptively hiding behind the false logic that “nobody is guilty if everyone is.”
This is similar to some of the ideas discussed by Cherokee activist and academic Andrea Smith in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Smith uses Carol Adam’s concept of the “absent referent” in exploring various aspects of sexual violence against Indigenous women, as well as how this concept recurs throughout Western society, mythology, and history. One example is that of the “battered” woman, which makes women “the inherent victims of battering. The batterer is rendered invisible and thus the absent referent”.
A similar tool of deception is at work in not only the “apology”, but the entire approach of the Canadian government in its “solutions” to the residential school issue. Aside from notorious cases like that of the Archbishop Hubert O’Connor, and others who can be easily tarred as “bad people who did bad things,” in Harper’s statement the perpetrator of the crimes against residential school survivors has no tangible face, almost no concrete existence.
Putting residential schools in historical context
A second great weakness of the “apology,” related to the first, is that it attempts to separate the residential schools from the entire colonial project of the Canadian state. This further obscures a true understanding of why this crime was committed and a more real understanding than simply saying “we were wrong.”
The key role of the residential school system in the overall process of Canadian colonialism cannot be overestimated. The theft of Indigenous lands and resources, along with the destruction of Indigenous cultures and societies, were met with resistance. In many cases this resistance was well organized and proved difficult for the European settlers to quell, despite their supposedly more “advanced” weapons and military organization.
Rather than risking a resurgence of resistance in the various Indigenous communities that could result from allowing them to exist, the authorities adopted a policy of forced partial assimilation. Even if total destruction of Indigenous people could not be achieved, partial assimilation could weaken the resistance of Indigenous communities, while producing an underclass to perform menial wage labour in the Canadian economy.
This assimilation was partial in the sense that Indigenous people were not to be completely absorbed into the settler society as equals. Even to call these youth prisons “schools” distorts not only how these institutions functioned but what was actually being taught.
The residential school system had the effect of fostering complete self-hatred in most of those who went through it, building a collective psychology within Indigenous people that reproduced the colonizer’s image of them. Indigenous people were forced to internalize a conception of themselves as being drunken, lazy, and stupid. Weakening Indigenous communities, cultures, and nations was the primary goal, with little in the way of “education” even in terms of Western conceptions of learning.
Challenging the Canadian state and the underlying settler project
These political implications of the residential school project continue today. It has had such a disastrous effect on the inter-personal relationships of Indigenous people that its wounds are overcome only with immense individual and collective struggle.
Generations of physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, continued child apprehension by organs of the Canadian state, alarming rates of suicide — these are only the more visible of the many problems Indigenous people have been forced to work through because of the residential school experience. As a result, the ability of Indigenous communities to effectively organize against the continued theft of lands and resources is directly weakened.
Yet this resistance continues, and should be understood as one of the main factors influencing the decision of the Canadian government to issue this “apology.” Right now there are numerous struggles by Indigenous people within Canada over land and resources. These struggles are intensifying in response to the Canadian capitalist economy’s increased hunger for valuable resources such as platinum, uranium, and oil in a time of increasing prices, scarcity, and volatility in energy markets.
These struggles of Indigenous people, be it Haudenosaunee, Cree, Innu, Anishininimowin, or Tahltan, just to list a few examples, are only in part over who the land in question “belongs” to in the Western sense of private property. When Indigenous people assert sovereignty over their lands, this also challenges the legitimacy of the entire Canadian nation state and the settler project that underpins it.
More importantly, it involves struggles for the assertion of a different conception of land and of Indigenous worldviews that see the well being of humans and the state of the land and all its living beings as inseparable. This means a respect for the earth and valuing life in a way totally alien from the “market value” these things may or may not have under capitalist relations.
These struggles over the land mark a departure from engaging with the Canadian political establishment on the terms it tries to set. Evidence of this can be seen in the consistent criminalization that goes on whenever Indigenous people make stands for their rights. Organizers like Shaun Brant, the KI 6, Robert Lovelace, and Wolverine are presented by the mainstream media, the police, and politicians as “criminals,” while the actual political content and nature of their actions is hidden.
The “apology” of Harper, along with the entire “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” project, must in the end be understood in this context. For example, we are being asked to engage on the level of accepting whether the apology is “sincere” or not and whether the settlement money is “enough,” and to welcome the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a meaningful space in which to heal.
This is a direct attempt to reframe the direction of Indigenous struggles by looking for solutions, or at least dialogue, within the framework of the Canadian settler state as it exists today. Could there be a more fundamental attack on Indigenous sovereignty than this, given the direction in which many Indigenous struggles are heading all across Canada?
Mixed reactions to Harper’s statement
The “apology” certainly had an impact on survivors of the residential school system, and this is completely understandable. Even a small acknowledgement of wrongdoing goes a long way, given how many years the Canadian government has refused to show accountability for its crimes. Indigenous people are subjected to a large amount of crazymaking around the ways they have been negatively impacted by the residential schools and other criminal acts. In fact this crazymaking is itself yet another act working to undermine the struggle of Indigenous people to end colonial oppression.
Given this dynamic, the “apology” could certainly be expected to have an impact on Indigenous people, which was characterized generally in the mainstream media as “mixed” at best. This reflects the healthy level of distrust among Indigenous people as to the true intentions and meaning of the “apology,” all hype aside. While many survivors interviewed in the media appear to have accepted the apology, many have also completely rejected it, and very few actually believe it will be of much consequence in terms of the healing process Indigenous people are still going through.
Towards ‘truth and reconciliation’ on Indigenous terms
Whether it is over the ability to decide what will and will not happen on our own lands, or how we are to overcome the impact of the residential school experience and what to do with those criminally responsible, it is essential to carry out these struggles on our own terms. Time and time again this approach has proven to be the most effective way to move forward in our struggles.
For this reason, we have to recognize the inherent limitations to the upcoming “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Unlike the commission of the same name that took place in post-apartheid South Africa, this commission is being headed by the same racist institutions responsible for the crimes under study, not to mention the crimes it continues to commit.
With a power dynamic like this, we can’t expect real truth or reconciliation to come out of this commission. We especially can’t expect these things from the commission under the Harper government, the same government that voted against ratification of the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous people, the same government which is still pushing for the extinguishment of aboriginal title (to mention only two of its main anti-Indigenous policies).
The most effective means of healing the wounds of the residential school experience will be to challenge the very foundations of its existence. This includes the grassroots work of survivors that have been fighting for several decades to see real justice for the perpetrators of the crimes of the residential school project. Without this effort the Canadian government would have never been put in a position to issue an “apology,” however weak and limited that apology was. This challenge also includes the struggles against the destruction of Indigenous territories going on all across Canada.
These struggles for sovereignty open up space for true healing, not just of the problems we face as a result of the genocidal residential school project, but all the problems we are forced to deal with as a result of Canadian colonialism.
Mike Krebs is an Indigenous activist in Vancouver and a contributing editor of Socialist Voice.
 From interview with Al-Jazeera English, available at http://youtube.com/watch?v=LJazWy0HHc4
 See for example ‘Healing begins when the wounding stops: Indian Residential Schools and the prospects for “truth and reconciliation” in Canada,’ by Ward Churchill, http://briarpatchmagazine.com/2008/06/09/healing-begins-when-the-wounding-stops/.
See also ‘An Historic Non-Apology, Completely and Utterly Not Accepted,’ co-authored by Roland Chrisjohn, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Karen Stote, James Craven (Omahkohkiaayo i’poyi), Tanya Wasacase, Pierre Loiselle, and Andrea O. Smith, http://www.marxmail.org/ApologyNotAccepted.htm
 Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End Press (2005), Cambridge MA. p. 22.
 Hubert O’Connor was a Roman Catholic bishop of the British Columbia diocese of Prince George. He resigned after being charged with sex crimes in 1991. He was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during the 1960s when he was a priest. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, but was released on bail after serving six months.