Premier Kathleen Wynne formally apologized Monday to indigenous peoples for the abuse, betrayal and silence of past Ontario governments as children suffered at residential schools.
"I apologize for the province's silence in the face of abuses and deaths at residential schools," Ms. Wynne said. "And I apologize for the fact that residential schools are only one example of the systemic, intergenerational injustices inflicted upon indigenous communities throughout Canada."
Her government is not the first to make a statement as part of her province's official response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Alberta issued its own apology last June. And in 2008, then-prime minister Stephen Harper offered a similar apology as part of a settlement process that included the creation of the TRC.
However, what transpired in the Ontario legislature Monday was remarkable and emotional in its own right. Several indigenous leaders and elders, including residential school survivor, Andrew Wesley, joined politicians on the floor of the ornate chamber, sitting close to the Premier, to hear her apology. The three political parties agreed unanimously to have the indigenous representatives sit with them.
Other survivors of residential schools, their relatives and indigenous leaders packed the public galleries above the chamber.
"No apology changes the past," the Premier said. Rather, she said, it is "but one step on the journey to reconciliation and healing that we are committed to walking together."
Ms. Wynne's government is investing $250-million over three years for 26 new initiatives aimed at building trust and respect. The reconciliation plan, known as The Journey Together, was welcomed by aboriginal leaders.
"I think with this announcement, with the investment that is attached, the fact that residential school survivors are involved and this government is starting to reshape what this relationship looks like, I think this is a historic day," said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.
The plan includes an investment of up to $20-million over three years to "address the legacy of residential schools." A new monument will be established in Toronto dedicated to residential school survivors. A school curriculum will be developed to educate students about the "horrors of the residential school system, the betrayals of past governments and our rights and responsibilities as treaty people … " Ms. Wynne said in her speech.
There were 18 residential schools in Ontario, operating from 1828 to 1991 – they took in children from the ages of 5 to 14. According to the government's report, 462 children died in the residential schools in Ontario; an unknown number are missing.
Up to $150-million over three years will be invested in "life promotion support" and "new mental health an addiction supports," according to the plan.
The plan also includes marking the first week of November as Treaties Recognition Week; the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs will be renamed the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and a justice system will be built to respond to "indigenous legal principles, autonomy and cultures," Ms. Wynne announced.
Mr. Wesley told the legislature about his experiences in residential schools, at first asking why he should reconcile with the government or the Catholic Church.
"I was taken away. I was beaten up. But I didn't do anything wrong. Why should I reconcile to the government, to the church?" he asked. But he said his wife encouraged him to reconcile.
"I started to understand what reconciliation is all about and as I get old I started to understand more that I have to talk about the abuse and be able to release the pain I was carrying," he said.
For Shirley Roach, 77, a residential-school survivor, it was an incredible day. "I was 7" when she was taken to a residential school, she said. "You were always scared."
Ms. Roach was beaten with a strap and sexually abused, she said, during the seven years she spent at residential schools in Sault Ste. Marie.
"I just don't like going back there," she said, tears streaming down her face.
Her daughter, Dianne, who accompanied her Monday, believes that "today marks a change in our future."
"People don't know our history," she said. "They don't know that residential schools were part of Canada, a part of the education system for our kids. I think educating the rest of Canada starting at elementary school right up to postsecondary, you'll get more empathy."
Her mother, however, doesn't believe she will see the healing complete in her lifetime: "But for my kids and my grandkids, and my great-grandkids and my great-grea-grandkids, this is what I want – for them to have it."