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"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.
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.Photo: Government of Canada
This event had a strong emotional and psychological impact on indigenous survivors of residential schools across Canada, survivors who suffered attempted forced assimilation, as well as countless acts of violence, rape and other abuses. 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 emotional day for survivors, regardless of their view on the meaning of the "apology." Some survivors reportedly felt that the statement was a step forward, while many others 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 only from the effects of the residential school system, but also from Canadian colonialism as a whole. Examined in context, the deficiencies of the "apology" are much greater than any positive impact it might have.
A crime of genocide
"I don't want to hear it. You know, you might as well send the janitor up to apologise...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 might think offering an "apology" meant claiming some sort of accountability for the residential school system. But Harper's statement acknowledges that what happened was a "mistake" without addressing it as a crime, and without any sense of individual accountability. It views the residential school system as simply 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, a look at the UN definition itself as outlined in the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948" is revealing:
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. There can be no argument, however, that parts (b) and (e) apply. 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 policy.
Harper apologized for the residential schools as a "system," but that does not absolve individuals who participated in the numerous criminal acts they committed. Yet Harper's statement attempts to do so by apologising on behalf of "all Canadians," hiding behind the false logic of "nobody is guilty if everyone is."
Cherokee activist and academic Andrea Smith discusses some of these ideas in her book 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, also examining how this concept recurs throughout Western society, mythology and history. One example she uses is that of the "battered" woman, a concept that 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 also in the general approach of the Canadian government toward the residential school issue. Aside from identifying notorious cases like that of the Archbishop Hubert O'Connor--who was convicted of rape and indecent assault against two young aboriginal women and who can easily be tarred in Harper's statement--the perpetrator of the crimes against residential school survivors has no tangible face and 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 wider colonial project of the Canadian state. This further obscures a true understanding of why this crime was committed.
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, was met with resistance. In many cases this resistance was well organized and proved difficult for European settlers to quell, despite their supposedly more advanced weapons and military organization.
Rather than risking a resurgence of resistance in various indigenous communities by allowing them to exist, authorities adopted a policy of forced partial assimilation. 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 both how these institutions functioned and what was being taught.
The residential school system had the effect of fostering complete self-hatred in most of the students, building a collective psychology. Indigenous people were forced to internalize a conception of themselves as 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 notions of learning.
Challenging the Canadian state and the underlying settler project
The political implications of the residential school project continue today. It has had such a disastrous effect on the interpersonal 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 branches of the Canadian state, alarming rates of suicide-—these are only the more visible of the many problems indigenous people have had to work through since the residential school experience. As a result, the ability of indigenous communities to effectively organize against the continued theft of lands and resources has been 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 its recent apology. Currently, 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.
The struggles of indigenous people, be they Haudenosaunee, Cree, Innu, Anishininimowin, or Tahltan, are only in part over ownership of land, 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 underpinning 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, land and all living things as inseparable. This means a respect for the earth and valuing life in a way that has little to do with their market value.
The recent struggles over land, using road blocks and other forms of direct action, mark a departure from engaging with the Canadian state on the terms it tries to set, such as the notoriously slow land claims process. The response to indigenous people standing up and asserting their rights has been criminalization. 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 political content and nature of their actions remain hidden.
Harper's apology, along with the entire "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" project, must be understood in this context. Both are direct attempts to reframe the direction of indigenous struggles within the context of the Canadian settler state as it exists today.
Mixed reactions to Harper's statement
The mixed response of survivors reported by the mainstream media reflects the healthy level of distrust among indigenous people regarding the true intentions and meaning of the apology. The emotional impact Harper’s statement has had on survivors of the residential school system is completely understandable; even a small acknowledgement of wrongdoing goes a long way, given how many years the Canadian government has refused to accept accountability for its crimes.
Indigenous people are subjected to a large amount of "crazy-making." Experiences are frequently either outright denied by Canadian society or downplayed, people are told simply to ‘get over it.’ Thus, Harper’s acknowledgement of past atrocities-–however weak-–produced understandable and significant emotional response.
Towards truth and reconciliation on indigenous terms
Whether it is regarding the ability to decide what will happen on our lands, or how we are to overcome the impact of the residential school experience and deciding what to do with those criminally responsible, it is essential that we carry out these struggles on our own terms.
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, the same racist institutions responsible for the crimes under study are heading this commission.
With a power dynamic like this, we can't expect real truth or reconciliation to come out of this commission, especially under the Harper government--the same government that voted against ratification of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people and a government that is still pushing for the extinguishment of aboriginal title.
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 who 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 never have been put in a position to issue an apology in the first place.
Mike Krebs is an indigenous activist in Vancouver and a contributing editor of Socialist Voice.
For more information check out Healing begins when the wounding stops: Indian Residential Schools and the prospects for "truth and reconciliation" in Canada and An Historic Non-Apology, Completely and Utterly Not Accepted
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.