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Now that we're on the subject of apologies...

By David Wilson

In 1998, I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism -- I began to take a story personally. It happened in late summer in Nanaimo, B.C., where I had gone to cover a civil trial involving former students of a United Church-run, government-owned residential school on Vancouver Island who had been sexually abused in the 1950s and '60s by a pedophile employed as a dormitory supervisor.

In the trial's early stages, lawyers for all sides had played hardball. Native plaintiffs who had come forward with hitherto private stories of appalling degradation found themselves in the crosshairs of withering cross-examination. By the time I arrived, the lawyers had been reined in a little. But the courtroom spectacle was no less heart-wrenching. It is not an easy thing to watch grown men describe how they were violated and humiliated as children. Nor is it easy to see the wounds continuing to fester long afterward.

At the time, my own two kids were nine and six -- which is roughly the age most of the plaintiffs would have been when the Indian agents rounded them up and took them away to residential school. I couldn't help but imagine how traumatic it would be for my kids to be uprooted from home and shipped off to unlearn everything they had ever been taught, including the language they spoke and the values their parents and ancestors lived by.

Somewhere in the middle of that trial, I stepped over the line and got too close to the story. I have been there ever since. I cannot compartmentalize it as a legal story or a policy story or a historical story or a justice story. It's a story about kids being taken from their families and communities, about kids being crammed into substandard living conditions, about kids being force-fed an alien culture and religion, about kids being put in harm's way because the system just didn't care enough about them to set up and sustain the proper checks and balances.

Not every Native child who attended residential school was abused; some thrived. But the vast majority were the victims of dismally failed social engineering. The residential school system produced tens of thousands of young people who were neither Native nor integrated, who all too often went on to live lives burdened by alienation.

As Larry Krotz points out in his cover story this month ("Who's sorry now," page 20), the United Church has apologized to Canada's First Nations for its part in the residential school system.

The church has also joined other denominations and the federal government in signing a historic compensation package for all surviving former residential school students. But as Krotz observes, the United Church wants Ottawa to go further and formally apologize.

And so Ottawa should. A national apology would dispel any lingering illusions that money can buy closure on this. It might annoy those who object to accepting blame for the sins of the past, but frankly I think a little annoyance would be a good thing. The blunt truth is that the legacy of residential schools still barely registers on the national radar. Canadians, churchgoing and otherwise, need to feel uneasy about this chapter in our history. We need to realize that it happened in the first place.

There's no guarantee that Canada's First Nations will accept an apology offered by the federal government. But Ottawa should offer it nevertheless. We all need to take this story personally.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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