The chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has applauded the formal apology presented to aboriginals across Canada by the University of Manitoba as “one of the most important we’ve received so far.”
Made by David Barnard, president of the university, the apology is believed to be the first to be offered by a university in Canada. It takes full responsibility for the institution’s failure to “recognize or challenge” the Indian residential schools system.
“This gesture cannot be underestimated,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC. “It’s one of the most important we’ve received and we hope that it will be one of many.”
Although his university was not directly involved in the schools, Barnard said it had helped to educate clergy, politicians and teachers who were actively involved in the policy of assimilation.
“We’re here because the University of Manitoba wishes to take a leadership role in helping expose the national shame of the Indian residential school system and (its) consequences,” said Bernard, his voice choked with emotion.
“Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions,” he pointed out at a “Gestures of Reconciliation” ceremony at the TRC’s Atlantic National Event here. “That was a grave mistake. It is our responsibility. We are sorry.”
Barnard noted there were 17 church-run, federally-funded residential schools that operated throughout Manitoba, including Winnipeg. The first school opened in 1888, and the last one shut its doors 100 years later. “Physical, sexual and emotional abuses that occurred at residential schools were among the most deplorable acts committed against any people at any time in Canada’s history,” said Barnard.
“We are sorry,” said Barnard. “We apologize to our aboriginal students and faculty. They are survivors.”
The University of Manitoba has one of the largest number of aboriginal students and faculty in Canada.
Sinclair, who is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, said the apology was significant because “change will occur in educational institutions, changing what it is that (students) are told about aboriginal people is very important.”
He noted that for decades, aboriginal students were “made to believe that they were inferior” and non-aboriginal students were taught the same, which fostered the latters’ feelings of superiority. Helping to raise awareness about “the validity of the history and culture” of aboriginal people will help “return to them their complete sense of self,” and foster relationships based on respect and equality, said Sinclair.
The TRC event is the third of seven national hearings being conducted by the commission tasked with documenting the 130-year history of residential schools, where about 150,000 aboriginal children were sent from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.