(This article was submitted to 10 Canadian newspapers. Not
one published or even acknowledged receiving it.)
by Rev. Kevin Annett
Rend your hearts, and not your garments
Imagine for a moment
that your own child goes missing
and never comes home. Years pass, and one day, the person
responsible for your child's death is identified, but he
evades arrest and imprisonment simply by issuing to you an
"apology" for your loss. He even speaks of seeking
"reconciliation" with you.
How would you feel?
Hold on to that feeling, and now multiply your loss by many
thousands of children, and make the guilty person the
government and churches of Canada. Do so, and you will have
arrived in a human way at the Indian Residential Schools
One of my former parishioners put it another way:
"What we did to those native children was an abomination,
and abominations aren't resolved with words and money. We
need to have our hearts torn in two and be changed. We've
got to stand, ourselves, under the judgment of God."
I doubt that Stephen Harper would be satisfied with an
apology if his own kids were hauled off and killed for being
practicing Christians. Yet on June 11, he will stand up on
our behalf and try to apologize to other nations for having
exterminated their children.
The whole effort seems more than ludicrous, or obscene. One
cannot, after all, apologize to the dead. But the truth is,
the government's planned "apology" to native people is an
enormous exercise in deception - primarily self-deception.
Do we even know the meaning of that easily uttered term,
It actually has a double meaning, according to the internet
Dictionary: a) "an acknowledgment of regret for a fault or
offense" and b) "a formal justification, defense or excuse
for one's actions".
That is, in our vernacular understanding of the term, an
"apology" can be a genuine regret for one's acts; but it can
equally be a way to evade responsibility for one's acts, by
justifying oneself before one's victim.
The legal understanding of the word, however, is more
specific, and has nothing to do with regret: "apology" is
defined simply as "a disclaimer of intentional error or
Now, I'm assuming that the government of Canada relies on
legal definitions - operating, as it claims, "under the rule
of law" - rather than popularly understood ones. So we must
realize that when the government and its Prime Minister uses
the term "apology", its understanding of the word is the
legal one: namely, "a disclaimer of intentional error or
In other words, on June 11, Stephen Harper will issue to the
world a disclaimer to the effect that the Indian Residential
Schools were not an intentional offense.
It's not surprising that the Prime Minister will be making
such an outrageous and unsupportable claim, since if he ever
admitted that the residential schools were intentional, he'd
be the first defendant in the dock at an international war
But more important, this effort by our government - and the
churches it is protecting - to be absolved of their own
crimes is taking place under the illusory pretense of making
amends with native people, when its purpose is simply to
legally exonerate itself of culpability for the deaths of
thousands of children.
This, indeed, has been the norm for both church and state
ever since the first lawsuit was launched by residential
school survivors in February of 1996. An army of court
scholars and legal experts has generated a mountain of
"holocaust denial" at every level of Canadian society during
the past dozen years, to convince the world that the daily
death and torture at the residential schools was not
intentional at all.
Such an "apologetic" agenda defies logic and common sense,
as in the statements from the government's "Truth and
Reconciliation Commission" scholars that, while evidence
shows that residential school children were being buried
"four or five to a grave", and that the death rate in these
schools stayed constant at fifty percent for over forty
years, these deaths were "not intended".
To believe that, one has to ignore the evidence of senior
government officials like Dr. Peter Bryce, who found that
children were regularly being "deliberately exposed to
communicable diseases" in residential schools, and left to
die untreated. The word Bryce used was "deliberately". How
else, after all, do so many children die?
All of this legal hoop jumping and evasion of responsibility
might make sense to the government, and pay the salaries of
their intellectual mercenaries, but it does nothing to
advance the cause of truth telling and humanity in Canada,
and makes the lives of our victims ever more difficult.
I know this all too well, having spent most of my waking
hours for years as a counsellor, advocate and chronicler for
many aboriginal survivors of the death camps we like to call
residential schools. And what I've learned from such work is
that we cannot come to grips with something that we don't
The truth is, Euro-Canadian society still doesn't understand
what these "schools" were, either at a "head" or a "heart"
level. If one believes the officers of the churches and
government, the residential schools "issue" is all about
money and verbal gymnastics. Yet none of these officials, as
far as I know, have broken down and wept in public over the
deaths of so many innocent ones; nor have they even offered
to return their remains to their families for a proper
Oddly enough, the very same officials continually and glibly
speak about "healing the past", without even knowing their
own history, and about "solutions" to the "residential
school problem", as if they understand what that problem is
- not realizing that, to quote William Shakespeare, "The
fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
For in truth, there is not now, nor has there ever been, an
"Indian problem" in Canada. Rather, the problem is a "white"
one. The problem is with us.
I won't point to collapsing eco-systems or troops in
Afghanistan to prove this point. Nor need I pose the paradox
of how educated men and women, with families of their own
and a professed "Christian morality", could drive needles
through infants' tongues at Indian residential schools,
throw three year olds down stairs, sterilize healthy kids,
and deliberately allow children to cough their lives away
from tuberculosis, and then bury them in secret graves.
The evidence of the problem is more immediate, and far
closer to home, in our continued segregation of aboriginal
people into a lower standard of humanity that allows them to
die at a rate fifteen times greater than other people of
After all, if we Canadians are who we imagine ourselves to
be - an enlightened society that "assimilated" native people
into our ranks, and made them our equals - then why has not
a single person ever been brought to trial for the death of
a residential school child? Why is the disappearance of tens
of thousands of native children in these schools not the
subject of a major criminal investigation? And why is there
an Indian Act, and not an Irish or an Italian Act?
Being, in reality, an unofficially apartheid society that
operates, in practice, with two standards of justice - one
for native people, and one for the rest of us - Canada can
no more cure the legacy of the residential schools than it
can stop chewing up the earth for short-term comfort and
profit. At least, not this side of a fundamental moral and
The fact that we are far from such a change struck home to
me a few months ago when the the government announced that,
although criminal acts did indeed occur in the residential
schools, there would be no criminal investigation of these
schools: an unbelievably brazen subversion of justice that
evoked not a peep of protest in the media or among the good
citizens and politicians of Canada.
Regardless of this, there are things that can be done to
overcome the genocidal residential schools legacy, and do
justice, for once, to the survivors. Rather than issuing
verbal and self-serving "apologies" which change nothing,
the government and all of us could take these kind of bold
1. Declare an Official Nation-wide Day of Mourning for
Residential School Victims, dead and living.
2. Fully disclose what happened in the residential schools -
the crimes, the perpetrators, and the cover-up - by
launching an International War Crimes Tribunal with the
power to subpoena, arrest and prosecute those responsible.
3. Bring home the remains of all children who died in these
schools for a proper burial, and establish public memorial
sites for them.
4. Create a National Aboriginal Holocaust Museum.
5. End federal tax exemption for the Catholic, Anglican and
United Church of Canada, in accordance with the Nuremburg
Legal Principles concerning organizations complicit in
crimes against humanity.
6. Abolish the Indian Act and Indian and Northern Affairs.
An Irish relative once told me that the way her country is
evolving away from eight centuries of warfare is through a
"First you remember; then you grieve; then you heal".
Instead of skipping the first two steps, as Mr. Harper and
too many of our people are trying to do "apologetically", it
is time that Canadians found the courage to truly remember
and admit to the world what we did to the first peoples of
this land, and grieve our actions in the manner of people
who truly rend their own hearts and want to change.
Perhaps then "healing and reconciliation" can become
something more than an overworked political catch-phrase.
Rev. Kevin D. Annett
Kevin Annett is a community minister in Vancouver who is
the author of two books on Indian Residential Schools and an
award-winning film maker.