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Harper set to apologize for abuse at native residential schools

OTTAWA - News that the prime minister will apologize June 11 for rampant abuse in native residential schools was bittersweet for former students living a legacy of trauma and cultural losses.


OTTAWA - News that the prime minister will apologize June 11 for rampant abuse in native residential schools was bittersweet for former students living a legacy of trauma and cultural losses.

"It's going to be a very emotional time when he does stand up for all Canadians and finally take responsibility and say they're sorry for what they did," says Ted Quewezance, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors' Society.

"It's the history of the government of this country - what they have done to little boys and little girls.

"It's our responsibility as survivors to listen to the apology. Some survivors will accept it, some will wait and see. Others . . . we'll see what will happen."

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced the news Thursday as Ottawa prepares for a national aboriginal day of action May 29 that could include highway and railroad blockades.

Tensions have increased between First Nations and a federal government that has been accused of hard-hearted neglect of native poverty.

"This is going to be a very meaningful and respectful apology," Strahl said in Toronto.

Native leaders have stressed the need for such a crucial gesture "for many, many years," he added.

Thursday's announcement was a surprise to staff at the Assembly of First Nations office in Ottawa.

National Chief Phil Fontaine, who helped broker a massive compensation deal and hopes to help draft the actual apology, was not immediately available for comment. He raised the prospect in recent weeks that First Nations might shun the long-awaited olive branch if it was used as a political ploy to mute protest on May 29.

Many among the roughly 90,000 surviving former students have stressed an acute need to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper say he's sorry in the House of Commons. More than compensation cheques, more than healing programs, they have staked any hope of reconciliation on an apology from the highest place of political power.

Quewezance, now "55 and holding" was just five years old when he was forced to attend the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan. He has talked publicly about the sexual abuse he endured, and has received a confidential settlement.

He and his family, like thousands of others, struggle with the ongoing affects of a shattered childhood, he said.

"It's still there. Canadians often wonder: Why are we the way we are? People in authority, who had the responsibility to care for children, abused that authority.

"Not everybody abused," he said. "But it's just unfortunate that perpetrators travelled right across this country and were transferred into different institutions and continued it."

The federal government admitted 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse in the once-mandatory schools was rampant.

A five-year truth commission to hear from former students and staff throughout Canada will begin its work June 1.

About 150,000 children attended the now defunct church-run schools that were funded by Ottawa to "Christianize" aboriginal people in the last century. While some former students describe positive experiences, thousands sued Ottawa for often horrifying ordeals at the hands of church staff and other pupils.

Many people recall being beaten for speaking their native languages as they gradually lost touch with their parents and customs. Cultural rootlessness, alcoholism, drug abuse and incest have often resulted, affecting generations of families to this day.

Charlene Belleau, chief of the Alkali Lake First Nation about 550 kilometres north of Vancouver, says her community will prepare for the apology "around ceremony, around tradition."

"For the thousands of victims of sexual abuse and violence that they experienced, hopefully it's a day that they can look back and be able to listen and . . . accept it for what it is, but also be able to move ahead in life.

"I don't want to remain a victim of government or churches forever in my life. And neither should our people."

 
 
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