Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Canadian PM apologizes to Aborigines

HERE TO HEARHundreds of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their parents came to Ottawa to hear what leaders called a pivotal moment for their communities

AP , OTTAWA

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official government apology on Wednesday to native Canadians for the country’s past practice of taking Aboriginal children from their families and forcing them to attend state-funded schools meant to assimilate them.

The children were often physically and sexually abused there.

Harper, speaking in parliament, said it was a sad chapter in the country’s history.

“Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country,” he said, as 11 Aboriginal leaders looked on just meters away.

His address in the House of Commons was broadcast live nationwide.

The apology comes just months after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar gesture to the so-called Stolen Generations — thousands of the continent’s Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.

In Canada, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.

“The government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize,” Harper said. “We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions and that it created a void in many lives and communities and we apologize.”

Many suffered physical and sexual abuse.

“These institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled and we apologize for failing to protect you,” Harper said.

Hundreds of former students were invited to Ottawa to witness what native leaders call a pivotal moment for Canada’s more than 1 million Aborigines, who today remain the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged group.

There are more than 80,000 surviving students of the schools.

Many students died of tuberculosis and other diseases at the poorly kept facilities.

In addition to the 11 Aboriginal leaders in attendance on Wednesday, the oldest school survivor, 104-year-old Marguerite Wabano, was on the floor of the House of Commons. Hundreds of Aboriginals watched from the public gallery and from the front lawn of parliament.

“Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry,” Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said from the floor.

Fontaine wore a traditional native headdress and he and other native leaders were allowed to speak from the floor after opposition parties demanded it.

“Never again will this House consider us an Indian problem for just being who we are,” Fontaine said. “We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility.”

Fontaine said the apology will go a long way toward repairing the relationship between Aborigines and the rest of Canada.

Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin and Chief Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin watched.

Harper showed little emotion. Opposition leaders got louder ovations for their speeches from the crowd outside.

Willie Blackwater, who was repeatedly raped and beaten by a dormitory supervisor at a residential school when he was nine years old, called the apology a pivotal moment in his life.

“I think this is a start of a long healing relationship,” Blackwater said. “It is quite a pivotal moment for us and for me. It will be totally awesome to go beyond this. Now I can focus a lot more on helping others.”

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