Skip to main content

Chief Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada. Michelle Cho Black/Handout

The most important apologies on the path to reconciliation will take place between Canadians, says a prominent residential school survivor.

Chief Robert Joseph, a Gwawaenuk hereditary chief, ambassador for the non-profit Reconciliation Canada, and former executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, told The Globe and Mail in an interview that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people must be able to speak openly with one another in order to create mutual understanding.

“Reconciliation will never really transpire unless we have a dialogue between us all,” he said. “We need to work really hard on this relationship idea.”

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples has been a topic of national discussion in recent weeks, after announcements by several First Nations that they had found unmarked graves near the sites of former Indian residential schools. Some of the graves, they have said, may belong to children who attended those schools.

These findings have increased demands for governments to take greater action toward reconciliation, such as by providing more funding for research into unmarked burials at other residential school sites. Meanwhile, First Nations groups have renewed their calls for an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in the institutions.

Mr. Joseph said Canada has arrived at a moment of uncertainty, as people wonder how they should proceed after the recent revelations.

“It can be a good moment of deep reflection,” he said. “We need to mourn those little children. In every culture, it is right to mourn beautiful little children who passed away. And in particular when the circumstances are so difficult to accept.”

An investigation into Mary Simon’s nomination for governor-general is a colonialist insult

Brian Pallister has shattered the relationship between Indigenous people and the Manitoba government

When they are ready, non-Indigenous Canadians should engage with the Indigenous population in ways they have not before and “let the real dialogue begin,” he added. He also emphasized the need to find common values and humanity.

“The most important sorries in this country will between Canadians, to each other, not the churches to Indigenous people and the government to Indigenous people,” he said. “It will be all of the other people who now live and share this country with Indigenous people.”

He also said the Catholic Church has lost “moral esteem” by not honouring a commitment to pay $25-million in reparations to residential school survivors. The church has faced increased pressure, including from the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, to fulfill the promise.

“They should absolutely pay that $25-million and apologize for not having done so,” Mr. Joseph said.

He pointed out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the issue of unmarked burials of residential school students in 2015. He said more attention should have been paid to the matter at the time.

Mr. Joseph, who was an honourary witness for the TRC, attended St. Michael’s Indian Residential School beginning at the age of six. He said most of the emotional, physical and spiritual damage he suffered during his time there was done in the first two years.

“I was completely erased as an Indigenous child,” he said.

He was spoken to in ways that dehumanized him, he said, and he could not move beyond the experience for a very long time.

He carries haunting memories with him, such as the sound of little boys sniffling throughout the school’s dormitory under their covers at night. He said he, too, would cry, sometimes until he had no more tears, and daydream about being back home again with his family.

Mr. Joseph also remembers hearing derogatory language. He said staff members called him and his classmates “dirty little savages” and gave them porridge with worms to eat. Every moment of his childhood was tense, he said, because he was waiting for staff members to slap him in the back of the head, to kick him or to grab him by his ears or hair. After he left the school, he said, he had no sense of purpose or value.

Residential schools, he added, amount to a “horrendous chapter” of Canadian history, and he does not know how Canadians can move forward without having a full understanding of what took place at the institutions, which operated for more than 120 years. The last school closed in 1996.

In recent weeks, the Trudeau government has faced calls from experts, including former TRC chair Murray Sinclair, to fund an independent probe that would determine whether crimes took place at the schools. Ottawa has not explicitly committed funds for such an investigation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet say that Indigenous communities should lead next steps.

Non-Indigenous Canadians should stand in agreement with Indigenous people on the need for further investigation, Mr. Joseph said.

“It will be a stain forever on our conscience if it is not done.”

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.