For the record: Political leaders on residential schools

Bernard Valcourt, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May and Perry Bellegarde react to the Truth and Reconciliation report

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde (in headdress) and Justice Murray Sinclair (in black suit), TRC commissioner, march during the Walk for Reconciliation, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sunday, May 31, 2015 in Gatineau, Que. Beginning in the 1870s, over 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were required to attend government-funded, church-run residential schools in an attempt to assimilate them into Canadian society; the last school closed in 1996. Students were prohibited from speaking their own languages, practicing their culture and often experienced physical and sexual abuse. Justin Tang/CP

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde (in headdress) and Justice Murray Sinclair (in black suit), TRC commissioner, march during the Walk for Reconciliation, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sunday, May 31, 2015 in Gatineau, Que. Justin Tang/CP

The truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools officially presented 94 recommendations today at an event in Ottawa. Below we’ve posted responses to the commission’s report from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Green party leader Elizabeth May and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt delivered the following remarks in Ottawa.

Merci. Elders, survivors, commissioners, chiefs, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a profound honour to be with you today and to be part of this closing event of the of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This occasion marks a significant milestone in the successful implementation of the Indian Residential Settlement Agreement. This dark chapter in Canada’s history has left a mark on our country and while this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions closing event, we must continue to work to reach our ongoing commitment of lasting reconciliation between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.

I’m confident that we can build on the important work that’s been done and continue to heal as a nation. We know that learning the truth has been central to the exercise of reconciliation. Oui, nous savons que la découverte de la vérité a été au coeur de cet effort de réconciliation. La vérité sur les expériences vécues par plus de 150 000 enfants autochtones, placés dans des pensionnats indiens entre 1874 et 1996, sur leurs conséquences pour les 80 000 anciens élèves environ qui sont toujours en vie et sur le traumatisme intergénérationnel que ce système a provoqué.

Si la vérité nous permet de nous souvenir, elle nous permet aussi de penser à lavenir en nous montrant attentifs aux besoins des prochaines générations denfants qui doivent avoir la chance de sépanouir pleinement. Indeed, the truth will not only help us to remember, but also to look forward and to focus on the next generation of children, to strengthen their potential for success.

At this time, I would like to acknowledge the commissioners and the staff of the commission for their hard work and dedication to enquire and document residential schools experiences, impacts and consequences, to provide the safe setting of support for former students, their families and their communities and to compile a historical record of the Indian residential school system and legacy.

Ministers of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development have had the privilege of attending all seven national events held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Personally, I’ve been honoured to attend events in Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton. Here in Ottawa-Gatineau, I had the pleasure of taking part in Sunday’s welcome for reconciliation and in the grand entry yesterday morning and I look forward to tomorrow’s ceremony at Rideau Hall.

I also had the honor of meeting with former students and youth whose strength and resilience in sharing their experiences is truly admirable and crucial for all of us to move forward together towards reconciliation. The parties to the settlement agreement have an ongoing role to play in not only successfully concluding the other parts of the settlement agreement, but in taking the torch from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to further improve relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada and achieve reconciliation.

Now this is not going to be an easy journey, but we have begun to build the knowledge, the tools and the relationships and today, I hope that we can commit to continue moving forward with the same determination that we have shown since the beginning of this very important mandate. Canada would like to reaffirm its commitment to advancing reconciliation with aboriginal peoples on the issue of residential school and its legacy.

Compiled through the work of the commission, the historical records of Indian residential schools made possible by the thousands of individuals who with courage came forward to tell their stories is an achievement of national significance. It’s also necessary to ensure Canadians have a greater understanding of the long-lasting harms caused by the Indian residential school system for aboriginal people across Canada.

Reconciliation is not to forgive and forget, but to remember and change and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has stated that reconciliation is a goal that will take the commitment of multiple generations and to that end, Canada is committed to continue building on the Prime Minister’s historic apology to former students of Indian residential schools, their families and communities. The apology affirmed Canada’s commitment to joining aboriginal peoples on a journey of healing towards reconciliation.

Since the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada has worked to fulfill its responsibilities and obligations under the settlement agreement and will continue to do so. The work released today by the commission points to the challenges that exist for many aboriginal people and communities across the country. It’s with great sadness when I heard that many who were abused and bullied have carried a burden of shame and anger for their entire lives and I want to send to all of those people a message. I mean, those who should feel shame are not the victims, but the perpetrators.

Like Prime Minister Harper said in the apology, These institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled and we apologize for failing to protect you. Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience and for this, we are sorry. The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a government and as a country.

There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential school system to ever, ever prevail again. As mentioned in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions finding, reconciliation requires public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, yes, youth engagement about the history and legacy of residential schools and to that end and in order to ensure we continue to the work, that we continue the work that we’ve started as a gesture of reconciliation, our government will provide support to Reconciliation Canada and the legacy of hope, to continue to raise awareness about the legacy of residential schools and to engage Canadians, all Canadians in dialogues and public education through events and educational tools related to reconciliation.

Also, as has been made clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions work, we must preserve the truth of Indian residential schools and for that, our government will be providing support towards the important work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in partnership with the University of Manitoba. The centre will house the millions of historical records collected by the commission from the parties to the settlement agreement.

The stained glass window installed in the Centre Block of Parliament is a poignant reminder of the true meaning of reconciliation, not only for the members of Parliament who enter through the door above which it sits, but for all Canadians. Designed by Christi Belcourt, this lasting symbol includes the idea that we are all looking ahead. The message of the window is not only to forgive, but to remember and to see change for former students and their families, but also for the unborn, the next generations. It’s in that spirit that Canada pledges that it will continue its effort to advance reconciliation in this great country of ours. Thank you.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair issued the following statement.

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report is a landmark moment in Canada’s reconciliation process. Today, our country is trying to turn the page on the many dark years and to move forward towards a better future for all peoples.

As Canadians, we must all learn more about this sombre chapter in our history. We will not forget the testimonies and we will remember the children who never made it home to their families. The NDP remains determined to repair the broken relationship with Indigenous peoples, which is the result of the inaction on the part of previous governments at the nation to nation level.

Canada must show leadership and we must ensure that formal apologies made in 2008 were not in vain. The government must act immediately in the areas of education, child protection and health services in order to put an end to the inequalities and sorry legacy of residential schools.

We are determined to act upon the report of the Commission. We will consult with Indigenous people and establish which of the recommendations require the most pressing attention.

Let us undertake to always pursue the truth, and to work together towards healing and reconciliation.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau issued the following statement.

Today, we recognize the meaningful work carried out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in documenting the impacts of the Residential Schools system on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada. By recording the experiences of thousands of survivors, the TRC has ensured that all Canadians can gain a deeper understanding of this dark chapter in our collective history, and of the devastating and lasting legacy it has left on Aboriginal Peoples’ communities, cultures, languages, health, education, and welfare.

Though the Commission’s work is coming to a close, this moment represents a beginning, not an end. As the TRC’s report and recommendations note, it is time to act, without delay, to advance the process of reconciliation, and rebuild Canada’s relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples based on rights, respect, cooperation, and the standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Meaningful reconciliation will only come when we live up to our past promises and ensure the equality of opportunity required to create a fair and prosperous shared future.

On behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada and our Parliamentary Caucus, I affirm our unwavering support for the TRC’s recommendations, and call on the Government of Canada to take immediate action to implement them.

As leaders and legislators, we have a responsibility to act. The truth of what occurred has been established. Now we must all commit to the important work of reconciliation going forward.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May issued the following statement

Today, we pause and listen to the intergenerational survivors of Canada’s Residential School System. Their stories, collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and presented today, describe the abuses endured by thousands of innocent children – torn from their families, their language and their culture. This abuse took place in school systems administered and funded by the Canadian government in partnership with Christian churches. Thousands of these children died in the care of institutions that were inured to their crimes. The Canadian government pursued a policy of cultural genocide – a cruel colonial attempt to wipe entire cultures from the face of this land.

Reconciliation means forging new relationships in light of this history – extending the respect and equality to First Nations that has been withheld for generations. The TRC findings provide an unprecedented accounting of our past mistakes; but, also an opportunity to atone. The report outlines recommendations for actions that touch all jurisdictions, all policy areas and all Canadians. Although the last residential school closed in 1996, their devastating effects remain. Canada consistently ranks in the top ten of the UN Human Development Index, but First Nations rank 63 rd or lower. These recommendations give us the means to work with aboriginal communities to begin to overcome the historical and ongoing injustices of brutal colonialism and cultural genocide. We can, and must, all take action to redress the legacy of residential schools.

The prepared text of remarks by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde

Motivated by courage, the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools sought justice and recognition from Canada through court cases that set us on a course toward truth and reconciliation. To the former students – the survivors – I honour you and I thank you. I am humbled to be before you. On behalf of the Assembly of First Nations, one of the parties to the Settlement Agreement, we thank the Commissioners for your strength, courage and heartfelt approach to the important work of truth and reconciliation.

The Assembly of First Nations commitment to reconciliation remains strong. Reconciliation means so many things as we move through the aftermath of the Indian Residential School system, one that we know was designed to rid Canada of ‘Indians’. In its aftermath, we are left with the gap – a persistent, wide and unacceptable gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians. We commit to doing the necessary work to close the gap.

The calls to action describe and remind us of the work that lies before us – our children must grow up safe and comfortable in their own homes and home communities, so addressing the over representation of First Nations children in the child welfare system is essential. We know that if we do not act, we will lose our Indigenous languages, the jewels of this land. Only three Indigenous languages are predicted to survive, the two First Nations ones being Cree and Ojibwe, so revitalizing and preserving our 58 remaining languages is an imperative as they are the heart of who we are. Committing to implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation is an essential first step to guide reconciliation in all areas of our lives affected by colonization and the attempt at cultural genocide launched by the Indian Residential School System.

We welcome the Commissioners’ call to the parties of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement for a new Covenant on Reconciliation to ensure that the ongoing work of reconciliation continues. For the past number of years, we have met many challenges and made progress. We thank you for your willingness to face the truth and work together. Continuing in that spirit will create the reality that we want for all peoples in the future: healing, peace, justice and the quality of life that we all deserve.

Education and awareness leads to understanding which in turn leads to action and ultimately reconciliation. The call to teach the history of the residential schools in schools in Canada is one that I will continue to support.

As a leader, I see myself as a helper—in Cree, ‘oskapewis’— and I promise to honour the faith that has been placed in me. We shall further review the Calls to Action and dialogue with the other Parties, Indigenous leaders and Canadians alike to bring about the transformative change that we all want for all of our peoples. And you, the former students and your families deserve nothing less than that.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.