Saganash calls on Duncan to apologize over residential schools comment

The Conservative government announced Thursday morning it was commissioning a stained glass tribute to the survivors of Indian residential schools.

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NDP leadership candidate and Quebec MP Romeo Saganash is calling on Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to apologize for saying residential schools were not an act of genocide, but an “education policy gone wrong.”

Saganash, who went to residential school, said in an interview that if Duncan doesn’t apologize, the prime minister should ask him to resign.

“It’s a comment that requires an immediate apology and not only for those of us who survived the residential schools like me…but also for us who had family die there, those of us who has seen the damage it has struck at the core of our communities, our families, our culture, for several generations,” said Saganash, who is Cree. “I think the apology should be immediate and failing that I think the prime minister should ask the minister to resign.”

Duncan on Thursday made the statement during an announcement that his government would be installing a stained glass window on Parliament Hill in honour of the system’s survivors.

Duncan, however, said the system may have been “lethal” to Aboriginal culture if it had continued to exist.

“I don’t view it that way (as an act of cultural genocide), but it was certainly very negative to the retention of culture and if it had extended for another generation or two it might have been lethal, yes,” said Duncan.

The federal government, with the help of the RCMP, forcibly seized Aboriginal children away from their parents and put them into church-run residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages and often faced physical and sexual abuse.

Some of the children died at the schools, mostly from sickness and disease, but also from beatings.

Many of these children’s bodies were buried in unmarked graves.

University of Manitoba professor Christopher Powell recently published a book arguing that Indian residential schools fit the definition of an act of genocide because the aim was to wipe out a culture.

“Canadians like to think we are a moral country, that we are good guys. A lot of Canadians recognize that the residential schools were painful, that there was abuse,” said Powell, in a recent interview with APTN National News. “But there isn’t still a widespread recognition that they were part of a systematic attempt to eliminate by force Aboriginal culture.”

In 1920, the deputy superintendent for the formerly named Indian Affairs department said the aim of residential schools was to “get rid of the Indian problem” in Canada forever.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” said Scott. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”

Under Scott, it became mandatory for all children between seven and 15 to attend residential schools.

Duncan announced that the Conservative government would be commissioning a stain glass window designed by an Aboriginal artist for installation by the Parliament Hill entrance where MPs enter Centre Block. Centre Block home to the House of Commons chamber where MPs debate and pass the laws of the land.

“As we are all aware, the history of residential schools tells of an education policy gone wrong,” said Duncan. “Going forward our government will continue to work with all willing partners to strengthen education outcomes.”

Duncan said his department would be paying an expert panel to recommend an Aboriginal artist, or artists to create the window.

The price for the project, however, is still unknown, but it would be installed sometime next year, said Duncan.

“We don’t know the size of the expert panel yet, we don’t know what they are going to recommend,” said Duncan.

Duncan said the window was his idea after “a lot of conversations” he had with people in the “Aboriginal community” since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to residential school survivors on June 11, 2008.

The government also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to travel the country and gather the stories of residential school survivors.

Part of the history of residential schools, however, may never be known.

Between 1954 and 1956, Indian Affairs set up “Document Destruction Teams” that pulped accident reports, inspector reports and principals’ diaries.

The teams also destroyed monthly and yearly reports by school and department officials in targeted purges, according to a 2006 study into missing residential school files.

Duncan said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and Mary Simon, president of Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, supported the stained glass project.

Duncan said that another panel created to study First Nations education would be issuing their report in December of January. He also that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be meeting with First Nations leaders next year.

Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.