The Harper ‘Apology’ — Saying ‘Sorry’ with a Forked Tongue

The Harper ‘Apology’ — Saying ‘Sorry’ with a Forked Tongue

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July 3, 2008

As you may have heard by now, on Wednesday, June 11 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology for Canada’s role in the Residential School System — that is, an apology for more than 120 years of state-sponsored crimes against children of Indigenous descent.

I haven’t actually heard the apology myself (heard one, heard them all). And to tell the truth I wasn’t even going to comment on it, but Mike Krebs sent me an article he wrote that I want to single out here.

Calling it The Harper ‘Apology’ — Saying ‘Sorry’ with a Forked Tongue, Mike articulates a number of key points surrounding residential schools and the apology. For instance,

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.

Think long and hard about that. More than 150,000 children were forced to attend these “schools” – where they were abused, molested, and tortured with the expressed intent of destroying their will, identity, language, culture, and beliefs. There were no mistakes involved. Everything that happened was deliberate.

Putting it in an historical context, Mike also reminds us that the residential school system played hand in hand with Canada’s desperate need to pacify indigenous life.

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.

Today we see this goal of assimilation – what can be painfully characterized as “a lofty Canadian dream for a pseudo multi-cultural state that ‘has always been here'” – is still very much alive.

We see it played out in the form of temp jobs for the mining industry; in schemes for private home ownership on reserve; in the BC treaty process; in the gradual, silent attempt to install the Indian Act; and of course, in the residential school settlement plan and the truth and reconciliation commission.

Regarding the latter, Mike concludes his article by pointing to our need for healing and justice (rather than Canada’s need for “truth” and “reconciliation”)

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.

Please head over to the Socialist Voice website to read Mike’s article in full.

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