Seven years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and, in careful but moving language, recounted the facts of the residential school system – whose horrors were already known, if still imperfectly. The P.M. spoke of 150,000 native children forcibly separated from parents and communities, and carried off to places where native languages and culture were prohibited. He spoke of how the victims were inadequately housed and fed, and emotionally, physically and sexually abused. He said the policy was a misguided attempt to assimilate them into the dominant culture, and "to kill the Indian in the child," as Sir John A. Macdonald himself had put it. He said it was wrong and had caused great harm.
And then he said the following words: "We are sorry."
"The burden of this experience," said Mr. Harper, "has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. 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."
Seven years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to look into residential schools has reported. Its findings have been shocking, detailing a history even worse than imagined.
In response, the P.M. has appeared cautious and defensive. In Question Period, he reminded the opposition that he was the first prime minister to formally apologize for the residential school system's century of grotesque abuse, and that the TRC itself was created by him as part of that healing process. All of which is true, all of which he deserves credit for – and all of which is not enough.
Where is the Mr. Harper of seven years ago, who dared to show such generosity of spirit? He and his government bore no responsibility for residential schools, but he nonetheless stood in the stead of his predecessors and apologized on behalf of all Canadians. The gesture had power. It needs to be repeated.
Consider how things have gone in your own life. Have you ever wronged a friend or a loved one? When you said, "Sorry," did you say it once and only once? Or did you repeatedly express regret and remorse, knowing that you had to go the extra mile, and maybe a few miles beyond, to win back trust?
Canadians learned this week that the abuse at residential schools was more damaging and widespread, and its effects longer lasting, than previously understood. The schools' very existence was an abuse. As many as 6,000 children may have died in them, meaning that residential school inmates were as likely to lose their lives as Canadians in the military during the Second World War.
Apologies are remarkable things. Words cost nothing, yet when sincerely delivered, they have value and lasting meaning. What's more, words are not a medicine that loses its power through repetition. Quite the contrary. And given that the TRC has uncovered deeper evidence of harm and wrongdoing, a further apology is in order.
The TRC has called on Canada to move "from apology to action," and issued 94 recommendations in that vein. The key ones are urgent and implicitly demand as much of native leaders as of the federal government.
Some of what the TRC calls for, however, feels like a distraction. Recommendations include increased CBC funding and the rewriting of the oath of citizenship so that newcomers to Canada will swear to faithfully observe "treaties with indigenous peoples." Standing in the shadow of an upcoming election, the Liberals and the NDP immediately embraced all 94 recommendations and promised to implement them in full if elected, which does leave one wondering how closely they read them.
The P.M., in contrast, has so far embraced his own record, and little else. That is a mistake. This country needs more apologies but after that it needs action, because the state of native Canada remains appallingly poor.
The commission is right to demand, among its core recommendations, that steps be taken to, somehow, improve the economic and educational outcomes of native Canadians and to address their overrepresentation in Canada's justice system. It also rightly calls for the creation of reporting mechanisms to monitor progress.
None of this will be easy; raising the economic prospects of an entire group or community is part science, part leap of faith. And even if the government of Canada knew exactly what to do, it cannot act unilaterally.
For example, last year, Bill C-33, the so-called First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which would have taken steps to improve both funding and accountability in native education, fell apart in the face of heavy opposition from native governments. The then-national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who had negotiated and supported the deal, watched it crumble and had to resign.
What Canada needs is leadership that picks up from the 2008 apology and moves forward with the same boldness to face the challenge of the decades to come: building a Canada where indigenous citizens are just as likely as other Canadians to enjoy economic success. Achieving that will not come about through more arguments about greater self-government or novel constitutional restructurings. Instead, it will come down to the thing that residential schools were ostensibly designed to offer, and which they so spectacularly failed to provide: education.