Earlier this month, I stood before hundreds of people gathered at the University of British Columbia and publicly apologized for the role my university played in perpetuating the Canada’s Indian residential school system , which caused harm to Indigenous people for more than a century.
Many survivors of residential schools were in the audience. As president of UBC, I was privileged to extend this apology to them along with an explanation to my university colleagues as to why the apology was necessary. My remarks were followed by those of two former residential school students and other Indigenous community respondents.
The Indian residential schools operated for more than a century as a partnership between the Canadian government and major Christian churches, with the last school closing only in 1996. For much of that time, Indigenous children were forcibly removed to schools that sought to break their ties to their families, communities and culture. A terrible legacy of abuse
Many spent their entire childhoods in the schools and many died there : the mortality rates at some schools at times surpassed 60 per cent. Most suffered emotional or mental abuse. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse.
Those who survived often left feeling distraught, alienated and angry. With no or limited experience of family life — and no means to address the trauma they had experienced — many transmitted the abuse they had endured to later generations.
Nearly every Indigenous family in Canada has been affected and the effects on communities are still with us today. Residential school survivors and their families, along with UBC President Santa Ono, listen to Barney Williams Jr., a residential school survivor, speak during the opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC in Vancouver. Few Canadians are aware of this history or its lasting harmful effects. Their ignorance is no accident. Expressions of Indigenous culture were banned by Canadian law from 1885 to 1951. Only recently has significant attention been given to Indigenous history experience and perspectives in school curricula at any educational level. Silence was acceptance
Universities like UBC bear part of the responsibility for this history — not only for having trained many of the policy makers and administrators who operated the residential school system and doing so little to address the exclusion from higher education that the schools so effectively created — but also for tacitly accepting the silence surrounding it.
In years past, even after the signing of human rights declarations and ethics agreements that followed the Second World War, university professors conducted research on the residential schools that exploited their deplorable conditions without attempting to change them.
The continuing failure to address this history has meant the previous ways of thinking — or of not thinking — about the residential school system have remained largely intact. Failing to confront a heinous history, even if it is one we did not cause, is to become complicit in its perpetuation. This photo from 1970 shows the entrance of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. Are we guilty?
Some of my colleagues may note the major part of the oppression and offence of the Indian residential school system occurred generations ago. And they may ask: are we — can we be — guilty for wrongs we did not personally commit?
This question is pursued in an insightful book, On Apology , by Aaron Lazare, Emeritus Chancellor, Dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His answer is twofold.
First, people are not guilty for actions in which they did not participate. But just as people take pride in things for […]
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