Canada Says 'Sorry.' Will We?

Canada said sorry on Wednesday. Four months earlier, it was Australia. Now it's our turn.

All three countries have a history of mistreatment of the original peoples of their respective lands. All three forcibly separated children from their families, communities, and cultures. And ironically, these same three countries were among the four (including New Zealand) who voted against the recently adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did what was long overdue. The Conservative leader in a speech in the House of Commons apologized for Canada's policy of forcing First Nations children into residential schools. He acknowledged the suffering of individual children who were often abused, inadequately housed and fed, prevented from speaking their language and learning their culture. And he recognized that the harm has had far-reaching ripple effects. You can watch the Canadian Prime Minister's apology here.

"We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect. ..."

And, addressing the First Nations' leaders who listened to his statement on the floor of the House of Commons, he added:

"You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly."

The day was marked by ceremonies in 30 locations across Canada, where First Nations people gathered to remember and to commemorate the apology.

Canada's apology follows a similar one by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Aboriginal peoples in February of this year. Like in Canada, young Aboriginals were taken from their families, often by force, and sent to schools and homes where they were often abused, exploited, and prevented from speaking their language or practicing their way of life.

The United States has a similar legacy, but has yet to apologize. One state has stepped up and issued a somewhat different sort of apology, though. In a non-binding resolution, the Colorado Legislature apologized in late April for the intentional deaths, "cruelty, and inhumanity" inflicted on Native peoples. According to an article in Indian Country Today, the resolution specifically mentions the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when as many as 200 Native people -- mostly elderly men, women and children -- were killed by members of the Colorado militia.

That's one state that's acted, 49 to go, plus the federal government. There's some good news from Washington, D.C., though. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican, and Michigan Democrat Dale Kildee, head of the House's Native American Caucus, are pressing for congressional action, and they could succeed.

An apology to Native peoples is an important first step, but it should be accompanied by a commitment to discontinue the old practices of taking Native land and taking away Native peoples' political rights. And there are a lot of old wrongs that we can still make right.

While we're at it, the United States also owes an apology to the descendants of the slaves whose uncompensated labor built so much of the wealth of this country.

* * *

For an update/correction, please Sarah van Gelder's blog.

Sarah van Gelder is Executive Editor and cofounder of YES! Magazine.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.