What is in an apology?

The two year anniversary of Harper’s apology to victims of the residential schools is just a few weeks away, what I would like to know is, has anything changed? The first residential schools were started in the 1840s with the last one closing in 1996. If you’ve ever heard of the schools it’s quite possible that you have never heard about what really happened. Unfortunately the stories of abuse lay dormant for decades, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921 by Dr Peter Bryce which talked about the mortality rates within the schools between 1894 to 1908 only became public in 1922.

Bryce’s report contended that the high mortality rates were were deliberate in many cases with healthy children being placed with those who had tuberculosis. Over a five year period the schools had a 35 to 60% death rate because of tuberculosis which was rampant. In Harper’s apology he mentions how some died but according to hiddenfromhistory.org an estimated 50,000 children died in the schools. The school’s were run by the Catholic, Anglican and United church’s, Pope Benedict XVI is the only church leader to express regret for what happened in the schools.

His Holiness 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.

The alleged abuses varied from Rape and torture, medical sterilization and experimentation, Physical abuse and even murder. I once had a conversation with one survivor where we talked about what really went on in the schools.(For the sake of this blog we’ll call him George) George went into a school in southern Ontario at the age of 5, he was beaten for speaking his language, he had his hair cut and had to deal with various abuses from the nuns and priests. The schools not only tried to beat the Indian out of the child but it also irreparably damaged and displaced families and when I mean displaced, George doesn’t know where family members who went into the schools are anymore.

I had such high hopes for the apology when I heard that it was coming but afterwords I felt nothing but disappointment. Sure the apology was a necessary first step but it didn’t go far enough,it sure wasn’t long enough at just under 10min. When Kevin Rudd the Prime minister of Australia apologized to the Aborigines for the stolen generations he spoke for 30min in detail about the survivors of the stolen generations went through and promised to make amends for what happened. Harper simply apologized and left at that, he even mentioned that it took a year of Jack Layton leader of the NDP telling him to apologize and that it was important. If it takes someone that long to decide if it’s okay to apologize then how could anyone take it seriously.

I was interviewed by the CBC about my reaction to the apology, unfortunately my response was severely edited. I wasn’t surprised by the edit because I don’t think people are ready to hear about what really happened during that time. What I think needs to be done is the whole truth needs to come out, everything, all the dirty laundry. The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared (FRD) sent a letter to the United Church which asked that the church identify the burial sites of residential school children who died under their care, and return them for a proper burial, the letter was ignored. There have been many demonstrations since the letter was sent out in February.

Only with full disclosure can the country and it’s victims can truly start to heal, a person can’t heal if they are prevented from sharing the full story. Unfortunately because there was so many years of neglect, so many years of ignoring the issue the victims have grown to include their families. One quote that best describes the situation most survivors are in is “We have forgotten how to love”. Imagine hurting so much inside that it affects your ability to interact with even your own family let alone people. That is what victims had to face, unable to talk, to share their pain, they kept it bottled up inside where it festered. Some victims turned to drugs and alcohol, some turned to suicide.

I myself am a victim of sexual abuse and was not able to share what had happened because my abuser told that my mother wouldn’t believe me and that it would cause only problems. It would be two decades before I would really speak about it. When it comes to solutions I don’t believe that a simple apology will do it nor will an inquiry. The survivors need justice, yes some of the accused are long dead but there are some that are still around and should be brought to justice. We can’t just brush this aside aside because it happened so long ago, in order for this issue to completely heal we need to do it properly!

Irkar Beljaars


When it comes to the First Nations, Inuit or Metis there are many, many stereotypes. One of my favorites, of course, is that we get too much money from the government. If that is the case, why are so many communities in disrepair? I grew up in the plateau district of Montreal during the 70’s. Life wasn’t easy growing up but thanks to my mother’s hard work we had four walls, a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Our mother would work 12 to 18 hours a day to make sure that we were okay. I always thought that I had it pretty rough….that is until recently. Naturally there are several levels of poverty in this country but I have never seen it worse than in Attawapiskat, where I recently spent six days working on a documentary.

An impoverished community in northern Ontario, Attawapiskat has suffered neglect because of the poor decisions made by a handful of people. I had never been to a northern community before and had only heard stories about how bad living conditions were up there. When I got there I discovered that it was much worse. There was housing so bad that it would never be tolerated in communities down south. With a large percentage of the community homeless, poor health conditions and a questionable water treatment problem it begs the question: Why?. Why does it have to get this bad before the leaders in this country sit up and take notice which unfortunately has not happened yet.

The 6 days I spent up there were some of the most eye opening of my life. I toured the community with the documentary crew who was up there to film the story of Attawapiskat. Rosie our guide showed us around and talked about the serious problems a community like Attawapiskat faces. Besides the poverty, poor housing and health problems there is the negative stereotypes that the people here have to deal with. “They’re a community of whiners and complainers,” Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) is quoted as saying. He has also said that he himself visited the community and found no problems. Funny thing, no one I spoke to recalls ever seeing him in the community. Health Canada has also commented on Attawapiskat concluding that there are no immediate health concerns and that intervention was not necessary. From what I saw in the community, their opinion could not be farther from the truth.


One of the places that I was able to view was the school where many health problems have occurred. INAC spokesman Greg Coleman says, “Right now our concerns are for the health and safety of the students… the last health and safety inspection showed it is safe.” http://attawapiskat.com/?cat=9 However, he was not sure when that inspection occurred. I can tell you from personal experience that it is not safe. I crawled under one of the schools to see for myself: mold was practically everywhere. One of the students even got sick while I was under there, and the student had only stuck her head inside where I crawled in for just a few minutes. I think INAC’s definition of safety is somewhat skewed. If they are really just “a community of whiners and complainers,” and receive too much money from the government, why are the health conditions and housing situation (to name just a couple of things) so awful? Yet the people continue to try to live with dignity and to find happiness where they can.

The thing that got me the most in Attawapiskat was the people. They were as warm and and welcoming as any other community I have visited. One experience I would like to share happened on the second day I was there. We were filming a scene at the water treatment plant. I entered the plant to fill up a water bottle and leave. Well, while I was headed back down the road I was surrounded by a group of 5 and 6 year old’s who peppered me with questions. My favorite questions were “Are you a movie star?” and “My cartoon network doesn’t work can you fix it?” It’s that innocence that best describes the community of Attawapiskat. No matter how tough the situation is, a smile is a smile and a laugh is a laugh.

Irkar Beljaars