My Canada includes rights of Indigenous Peoples.
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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Harper ‘Apology’ — Saying ‘Sorry’ with a
Forked Tongue
By Mike Krebs
Related Reading : Roots and Revolutionary Dynamics of
Indigenous Struggles in Canada
“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
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 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 [1]
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
(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
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another
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.[2] 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
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”.[3]
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,[4] 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
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
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
[1] From interview with Al-Jazeera English, available at
[2] See for example ‘Healing begins when the wounding
stops: Indian Residential Schools and the prospects for
“truth and reconciliation” in Canada ,’ by Ward
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.
[3] Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American
Indian Genocide. South End Press (2005), Cambridge MA . p.
[4] 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.


  1. This is a great piece! I'm glad that the media are starting to see that what took place at the residential schools was GENOCIDE. I'm also glad that they are acknowledging that many, many children died at the schools or otherwise went missing.

    I wish the media would, however, recognize that Kevin Annett was the first to discover this information and that they would stop vilifying him.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for your comment RS. It is a great piece, and it was genocide, and we Canadians are just coming to grips with that, and the knowledge of how recent these events are is what really knocks us for a loop.

    How could we not know?

    Clearly because we were not meant to know. The collaboration between our governments and mainstream media, protecting Canada's free access to resources from Indigenous land, saw to that, and see to that still.

    Kevin Annett has dedicated his life to exposing the truth, and I agree that he deserves credit for that, not vilification. I am hopeful that time will yet come.


My Canada includes rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Two Row Wampum Treaty

Two Row Wampum Treaty
"It is said that, each nation shall stay in their own vessels, and travel the river side by side. Further, it is said, that neither nation will try to steer the vessel of the other." This is a treaty among Indigenous Nations, and with Canada. This is the true nature of our relationships with Indigenous Nations of 'Kanata'.