Canadian Indian residential school system | apologies


I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.

On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.

Archbishop Michael Peers, "A Step Along the Path"[75]

Acknowledgment of the wrongs done by the residential school system began in the 1980s.[4][3] In 1986, at its 31st General Council, the United Church of Canada responded to the request of Indigenous peoples that it apologize to them for its part in colonization and in 1998 apologized expressly for the role it played in the residential school system.[76][72][77]

Archbishop Michael Peers apologized to residential school survivors, on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, on August 6, 1993, at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario.[75] The following year the Presbyterian Church in Canada adopted a confession at its 120th General Assembly in Toronto on June 5, recognizing its role in residential schools and seeking forgiveness. The confession was presented on October 8 during a ceremony in Winnipeg.[78]

In 2004, immediately before signing the first Public Safety Protocol with the Assembly of First Nations, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli issued an apology on behalf of the RCMP for its role in the Indian residential school system: "We, I, as Commissioner of the RCMP, am truly sorry for what role we played in the residential school system and the abuse that took place in the residential system."[79][80]

Federal government

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the sitting Cabinet, in front of an audience of Indigenous delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments' policies of assimilation.[81][82] The Prime Minister apologized not only for the known excesses of the residential school system, but for the creation of the system itself. Harper delivered the speech in the House of Commons; the procedural device of a Committee of the Whole was used, so that Indigenous leaders, who were not Members of Parliament, could be allowed to respond to the apology on the floor of the House.[83]

Harper's apology excluded Newfoundland and Labrador as it was argued that the government should not be held accountable for pre-Confederation actions. Residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were located in St. Anthony, Cartwright, North West River, Nain and Makkovik. These schools were run by the International Grenfell Association and the German Monrovian Missionaries.[84] The government argued that because these schools were not created under the auspices of the Indian Act, they were not true residential schools. More than 1,000 survivors disagreed and filed a class action lawsuit against the government for compensation in 2007. By the time the suit was settled in 2016, almost a decade later, dozens of plaintiffs had died. It was expected that up to 900 former students would be compensated.[85]

On November 24, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology to former Innu, Inuit and NunatuKavut school survivors and their families during a ceremony in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.[86][87] He acknowledged that students experienced multiple forms of abuse linking their treatment to the colonial thinking that shaped the school system.[88] Trudeau's apology was received on behalf of residential school survivors by Toby Obed who framed the apology as a key part of the healing process that connected survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador with school attendees from across the country.[86] Members of the Innu Nation were less receptive, rejecting the apology ahead of the ceremony.[89] Grand Chief Gregory Rich noted in a released statement that he was "not satisfied that Canada understands yet what it has done to Innu and what it is still doing", indicating that members felt they deserved an apology for more than their experiences at residential schools.[86][89]


On June 22, 2015, Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta, issued a formal apology as a ministerial statement in a bid to begin to address the wrongs done by the government to the Indigenous peoples of Alberta and the rest of Canada.[90] Notley's provincial government called on the federal government to hold an inquiry on the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada at the same time. They also stated their intent to build relationships with provincial leaders of Indigenous communities, and sought to amend the provincial curriculum to include the history of Indigenous culture.[91]

On June 18, 2015, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger became the first politician to issue a formal apology for the government's role in the Sixties Scoop.[92] Class action lawsuits have been brought against the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario governments for the harm caused to victims of the large-scale adoption scheme that saw thousands of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents in the 1960s.[93] Indigenous leaders responded by insisting that while apologies were welcomed, action – including a federal apology, reunification of families, compensation and counselling for victims – must accompany words for them to have real meaning.[94]

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized on behalf of the provincial government for the harm done at residential schools at Legislative Assembly of Ontario on May 30, 2016.[95] Affirming Ontario's commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples she acknowledged the school system as "one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history".[96] In a 105-minute ceremony, Wynne announced that the Ontario government would spend $250 million on education initiatives and renamed the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. It was further announced that the first week of November would be known as Treaties Recognition Week.[97][98]


On October 27, 2011, University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologized to the TRC for the institution's role in educating people who operated the residential school system. This is believed to be the first time a Canadian university has apologized for playing a role in residential schools.[99]

Vatican's expression of sorrow

Students in the classroom, with a teacher in nun's garb at the back of the room.
Students of St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, c. 1945

In 2009, Chief Fontaine had a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI to obtain an apology for abuses that occurred in the residential school system. Fontaine was accompanied at the meeting by a delegation of Indigenous peoples from Canada funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Following the meeting, the Vatican released an official expression of sorrow on the church's role in residential schools:

His Holiness [i.e. the Pope] recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the Indigenous peoples.

Given the sufferings that some Indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.[100]

Fontaine later stated at a news conference that, at the meeting, he sensed the Pope's "pain and anguish" and that the acknowledgement was "important to [him] and that was what [he] was looking for".[101]

On May 29, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the current Pope Francis for a public apology to all survivors of the residential school system, rather than the expression of sorrow issued in 2009.[102][103][104] The request aligned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call for "a formal apology issued by the Pope to the survivors of the residential school system for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples".[105] Trudeau invited the Pope to issue the apology in Canada. Although no commitment for such an apology followed the meeting, he noted that the Pope pointed to a lifelong commitment of supporting marginalized people and an interest in working collaboratively with Trudeau and Canadian bishops to establish a way forward.[102]

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