Mayana C. Slobodian, Official Apology, Official Denial: Making Sense of Canada’s Truth Commission [2017 C4eJ 12] (Symposium)

[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the symposium on The Ethics of Apology: Interdisciplinary & International Perspectives]

Mayana C. Slobodian*

In June 2008, the Government of Canada issued an official apology to former students of the Indian Residential School system. The apology coincided with the start of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a national commission that held events across the country before delivering a searing final report in June 2015. These two events — the processes and political actors involved in each, the causality and timeline — have become inextricably linked in Canada’s discourse and national memory of that time. Throughout the commission’s work, it was often described as having been created after or by or because of the apology, or sometimes vice versa, though neither are true. For its part, the federal government did little to discourage this narrative. On the day the TRC delivered its final report, then-prime minister Stephen Harper boasted in Question Period that his government created the TRC. When pressed to say whether he agreed with their finding that residential schools amounted to cultural genocide, prime minister Harper responded with a reminder that it was his party that who had “issued the historic apology.”[1]

This paper returns to that fractious period of Indigenous-state relations in what might be called the Long Harper Decade. I suggest that while the Conservatives can take some credit for the success of Canada’s truth commission, it was not in the way Harper suggested on that day. A narrative that begins with an apology and ends with reconciliation makes sense and may appeal to certain rose-coloured habits of Canadian political memory, but it’s not accurate. The Harper administration opposed the creation of a truth commission, resisted making an apology, and blocked the work of the commission to the degree that the TRC had to sue the federal government several times. For its part, the commission not only overcame this opposition, but mobilized it as a way of unbracketing the supposed ‘wrong’ done to Indigenous peoples, and naming settler colonialism as on-going in Canada.

The TRC is increasingly taken up as an institution of government, rather than the result of a hard-fought class-action lawsuit. The path to national political acknowledgement the crime of Canada’s child internment policy was marked by significant conflict and resistance. It illustrates the sometimes disorderly and uncontrollable quality of government, and how political gestures can take on a life of their own.

Commissions and official apologies are closely related practices of government in Canadian political culture. Both are largely means of managing scandals — though at different scales, with varying degrees of institutional apparatus involved. Commissions and official apologies both draw authority from the presumed disinterest of the actors at their centre. For commissions, the appointment of members of the judiciary as commissioners embodies the principle of arms-length independence in its investigations. Official apologies are given by the prime minister acting as figurehead — not as leader of his party, or even as leader of the government responsible for the offending actions. The prime minister apologizes “on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians.”[2]

Both commissions and official apologies are largely dismissed as being easy answers to complicated problems, a cheap and easy means of deflecting blame or responsibility. But “calling a commission” is also an implicit acknowledgement that said scandal does exist, and not all public calls for a commission result in a commission being called. In terms of political capital, such gestures are not always cheap or easy — as is evidenced by the fraught Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girl Inquiry. For this reason, both deserve more scholarly attention than they have typically been granted.

I consider commissions’ attempts to “fix Canada” — in the sense of cure, but also hold still, make knowable. These large scale political gestures are part of the production of official knowledges, and knowledge, as we know, can be unpredictable. The story of Canada’s official apology is certainly one of unpredictability. This paper draws attention to moments of conflict and contingency as a means of counteracting that impulse to attribute seemingly progressive political shifts to inevitability or, worse, to a government that actively stood in the way.

Before the apology was the offence. It’s a history most Canadians are only now becoming familiar with. Canada’s Indian residential school policy is better described as a child internment policy, as most students left with little in the way of actual education. Beginning with confederation and continuing in earnest into the 1970s, the Indian Act mandated the mandatory removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement at schools built deliberately far from their reserve communities. Schools were funded by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and operated by Catholic, Anglican and United churches.

The goal of the child internment policy is best articulated by one of the chief architects of the IRS system, Duncan Campbell Scott, who said “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”[3] While the implication here is of cultural assimilation, at the time the Department of Indian Affairs was aware that some schools had mortality rates as high as 50%.[4] As in all settler colonial contexts, the line between cultural destruction and physical destruction is a blurry one.

The deplorable conditions at residential schools have been well- and painfully documented, most extensively in the TRC’s six-volume Final Report and the searing oral history text, The Survivors Speak.[5] Children taken as young as five years old, parents who resisted faced arrest, just long enough to give Indian Agents and assisting RCMP officers time to grab their kids. Beatings, solitary confinement, and denial of food were a daily occurrence — sometimes justified as punishment for offences such bedwetting, speaking their own language, or showing affection to siblings. Children were robbed of their identity as names were changed, or simply replaced with a number. Kids would go months or years without seeing their parents, many interned year-round at the facilities. Both commission testimony and archival research suggests that children spent less time learning than engaging in forced labour and, in some cases, unwittingly participating in government-funded malnutrition studies.[6]

Residential schools were gradually secularized in the 1970s, but even before the last school closed in 1996, the scandal of child internment began to unfold. Anishinaabe Chief Phil Fontaine and future National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations led the way in 1990, speaking publicly about his experiences of abuse at the Fort Alexander residential school.[7] Over the next ten years, there were 15,000 individual and 21 class-action lawsuits filed against churches, clergy members, and the government. The focus that began on instances of exceptional abuses soon expanded to include the crime of the policy itself.

In 2001, the federally operated Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada was created to manage the torrent of litigation, culminating in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). In 2005, in the waning days of Liberal Paul Martin’s tenure, an agreement-in-principle was signed between representatives of the federal government, the three implicated churches, and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, speaking for the interests of former students. Of the 150,000 children interned since 1879, over half were still alive.

Though the TRC is the best-known outcome of the settlement, it was only one part of it. The IRSSA had five components: The Common Experience Payment (CEP) and Independent Assessment Process (IAP) were lump-sum payments to former students based on their time spent at the schools, and any additional hardships they experienced while there. The Commemoration Fund and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation were $20 million and $125 million one-time grants available for community projects. Indeed, calling a truth commission was a sticking point in the negotiation of the settlement, as the federal government preferred to avoid any lengthy processes.[8] In the end, its $60-million budget came out of the overall settlement funds. This means, as Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair repeated put it, the TRC was paid for by the survivors.

On March 21, 2007, the IRSSA received court approval with agreement from all parties, with the recently elected Harper-led Conservative minority signing on behalf of the federal government. It remains the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history. The announcement made headlines, and the question of an apology quickly emerged.

Did the agreement amount to an apology? Was this compensation implicit acknowledgement of a historical wrong?

Within days, members of the Assembly of First Nations were calling for a clarification.[9] Chief Fontaine pointed to a letter from the original agreement-in-principle, signed in 2005 by then-deputy PM Anne McLellan. In it, she had described “a need for an apology that will provide broader recognition of the IRS legacy and its effect upon First Nations communities.” This letter was the only place where an apology was mentioned in the settlement proceedings, and it was not part of the final IRSSA.

Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice responded by making it clear that there would be no apology, as this would necessitate reopening the terms of the settlement. Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, he added, “I’ve said quite clearly that the residential school chapter of our history is one that was a difficult chapter. Many things happened that we need to close the door on as part of Canadian history but fundamentally, the underlying objective had been to try and provide an education to aboriginal children.”[10]

No apology Prentice

Coming just days after the momentous settlement, minister Prentice’s description of residential schools as fundamentally well-meaning was politically tone-deaf. It fuelled calls for an official acknowledgement of what had been implicitly acknowledged in the compensation: that Indigenous people had been wronged. It was an acknowledgement that all the churches involved in residential schools had offered long before the IRSSA, between 1986 and 1994.

The pressure had a distinctly partisan tone. On May 1, Liberal Gary Merasty, the first Indigenous member of Parliament for Saskatchewan, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on the prime minister to apologize. Describing the perils of “national collective amnesia,” Merasty charged the Conservatives with “trying to reshape historical memory to suit the needs of those who are in power.” Minister Prentice suggested that Canada ought to follow the example of South Africa, and “wait until the facts are known,” allowing the yet-to-be-launched TRC to make recommendations. Members of the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois all stood up to support the motion with their own stories and interactions with Indigenous people and survivors. At the end of the day, the motion passed 257-to-zero — with even prime minister Harper voting in favour — but no apology followed.

Between May and October, the call for an apology from the government was a perennial topic and a useful cudgel to use against the Conservatives. MP Michael Ignatieff described the Conservatives as “curiously resistant” to it. An editorial in the Toronto Star put it this way: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserves universal disgust for his stubborn and inexplicable refusal to issue an official apology to the survivors on behalf of the federal government… So why is Harper being so stubborn? Only he knows, because all legal obstacles have been cleared away.”[11] The legal obstacles are, presumably, the legal liability that is presumed to come along with an admission of fault. This apology would come after the question of reparations had already been resolved.

Perhaps only Harper knows why he opposed the apology, but evidence in the pages of the National Post illustrate how gender features prominently. The day before the eventual apology, columnist Don Martin condemned Harper for making what he called “the greatest grovel in Canadian history.”[12] Groveling has a more affective dimension than apologizing. Groveling is emasculating, it is the terrain of those soft liberals who both value words too much and not enough. Hints of the revolt of disenfranchised masculinity that would come to dominate American political discourse in the next decade.

By autumn of 2007, the political winds had shifted and, as it happens, the formal announcement came from a woman. In her October speech from the Throne, Governor General Michaëlle Jean described the IRSSA and launch of the truth and reconciliation, and added that “the Prime Minister, on behalf of our Government, will use this occasion to make a statement of apology to close this sad chapter in our history.” In his throne speech that followed, Harper did refer to Indigenous peoples — as having “established Canada’s first settlements” — though he did not mention an apology. The following day, the prime minister’s office finally confirmed that an official apology was in the pipeline.

On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government officially offered a full apology on behalf of Canadian for the Indian Residential Schools system. It was covered live on television, with members of the Survivors Society and other Indigenous leaders present. The wording of the apology was unequivocal:

The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry. We are sorry. We are sorry.

It closed by referring to the TRC and the unique opportunity to educate Canadians and move forward.

Canada’s official apology wasn’t always going to happen, despite the apparently low stakes, in terms of financial implications. Once it happened, it proved short-lived. It began on June 11, 2008, and ended on September 28, 2009. That was the day the prime minister opened his mouth again and said something else about Canada. Speaking to a meeting of the G20 countries in 2009, he said,

We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers, but none of the things that threaten or bother them about the great powers.

This statement, so at odds with the prostrate prime minister asking for forgiveness, was immediately picked up by politicians and media.[13] A reporter for Reuters described it as the prime minister “appearing to forget that his countrymen are generally known for their modesty,” while the Winnipeg Free Press ran the headline, “Harper drops the ‘C-bomb’ on G20.”[14]

What does it mean to say Canada has no history of colonialism, and why did these words ring so dissonantly in the context of the official apology? Harper had made similar remarks before. In 2006, in a speech before the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce in London, he said,

Now I know it’s unfashionable to refer to colonialism in anything other than negative terms. And certainly, no part of the world is unscarred by the excesses of empires. But in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant.[15]

This rehabilitation of British imperialism in the service of Canadian nationalism is increasingly common. It suggests that Indigenous peoples ought to be grateful that the British and Canadian government did not resort to the comparatively violent actions of the US government and imperial forces in Latin America.

However, Harper’s “no history of colonialism” is far more productive, particularly given that it came after the official apology, and it drew renewed scrutiny to that act. The tension between the two remarks proved an easy shorthand for the hypocrisy and poor-faith of federal-Indigenous relations. It attenuated the meaning of the official apology in such a way that didn’t simply negate it as much as give it new life — as an imminent critique of Canadian history, settler colonialism and the place of residential school policy in achieving its goals.

When Harper apologized in 2008, it was for residential schools, specifically. It acknowledged the harm caused by the policy, but the explanation was largely cultural. According to the apology,

Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.

By this logic, the goal of residential schools was the ill-advised re-education of Indigenous children. The abuse that occurred may have been justified or motivated by racism, it was not connected to any other aspect of Canadian history or life. When Harper denied that colonialism existed in Canada, he created a space for talking about what colonialism is, and what Canada is. Without this remark, we may never have noticed that the word “colonialism” never actually appeared in the official apology. Harper often referred to Indigenous peoples as the ‘first settlers’ of Canada. Indigenous peoples are part of the fabric of the nation, they are the First Canadians — how could Canada colonize Canadians?

In the years that followed, it is safe to say that relations between Indigenous peoples and the federal government deteriorated. The repeal of Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act and the First Nations Elections Act all put public pressure on band councils and leadership, drawing attention to conflicts between the collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples. The 2012 Safe Streets & Communities Act was widely criticized for disproportionately affecting Indigenous peoples, and National Energy Board meetings on the West Coast were being routinely shut down by Indigenous peoples intent on making their voices heard. In December 2012, the protest movement known as Idle No More erupted, starting an unprecedented period of Indigenous political and community mobilization in Canada.[16]

Dear Harper

It was within this politically charged and highly confrontational context that the TRC was uneasily situated. The relationship between the TRC and the federal government was fraught from the start. In October 2008, the chair of the commissioners resigned, citing internal conflict and concerns about political interference from Ottawa; the remaining two commissioners followed suit in January 2009. Three new commissioners were appointed and at their request, its main office was moved from Ottawa to Winnipeg. Like the official apology, the IRSSA was designed to limit the scope of the historical wrong to residential school policy, but from the start, the commission protested its limited jurisdiction. The commissioners repeatedly criticized the IRSSA for excluding Metis students and Indigenous children who attended day schools.

Between 2009 and 2014, the TRC held seven large-scale National Events in convention centres across Canada. These events were increasingly well-attended, and spawned additional independent activities, such as the 2013 Reconciliation Canada march in Vancouver, that drew over 40,000 people.[17]

Most of the news coverage of TRC events focussed on the testimony and Commissioner sharing panels. Former students shared stories and addressed their families, while Honorary Witnesses and members of local governments made statements of reconciliation. Beyond the speeches and testimony, the convention centres hosted smaller panel discussions, film screenings, and day-long education programming for school children.

Though education and commemoration were the central tasks of the National Events, there were other, quieter activities going on as well. In one room, tables were set up with binders full of photographs taken at the schools, drawn from Archives Canada. Former students were invited to label the photographs with names of classmates they could remember. Watching grey-haired women giggling over photos of themselves and friends was a reminder of the resilience of Indigenous peoples, and of children in adversity.

The binder held another, more bleak function. It was part of the TRC’s Working Group on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. This project, whose work makes up Volume 4 of the Final Report, found that for the 3,200 confirmed at the schools, only half include a cause of death, one-third have no name, and one-quarter not even a gender. Asking survivors to record their friends’ names was one attempt to get a clearer record of this dark reality of life at residential schools.

Adjacent to the plenary halls, there was a large foyer filled with tables of craft vendors, advocacy organizations and churches. It was in this vendor hall where the federal government and the official apology were located. At a table covered in Canadian flag pins and stickers, under a sign reading “Government of Canada,” federal employees handed out glossy images of the stained glass window in Parliament commemorating residential schools, and invited passers-by to take a rolled up piece of paper. On it was the official apology. Printed in faux-aged style and cursive typeface, the presentation evoked an old treaty. They sat in a pile, with an elastic band holding each in place. A banal afterlife for such a momentous gesture.

Apology print out

The official apology was present in another, more prominent form at the TRC. Part of the week-long programming included an interactive installation titled “(Official Denial) Trade Value in Progress.” This project, created by artists Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac, travelled with the commission to all its national events. It was described in the TRC programme booklet as inviting “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to consider reconciliation, decolonization and our colonial past and present by responding to Stephen Harper’s 2009 statement ‘We also have no history of colonialism.’” The installation consisted of a large patchwork of Hudson’s Bay trade blankets, laid out in a conference room, with that phrase machine-printed in black letters in the centre. Felt pens and embroidery materials were scattered about, and participants were invited to write or sew their responses onto the blankets themselves.


According to the artists, the goal was to provide a platform for presenting counter-narratives to Harper’s disavowal. By the Edmonton event, they were filled with traces of these like, “Mr Harper. You were charged with the duty of apologizing on behalf of all Canadians. You fell short, disgraceful.”[18]

This installation is significant because it illustrates the degree to which the TRC was actively engaged in connecting historical wrongs to the on-going actions of the federal government. By apologizing then denying that colonialism existed, the dissonance between these statements made space for interrogating the myths of Canadian nation-building and the place of Indigenous peoples in it. It was in this space that the TRC made its home, in both what was included at the National Events, and what was not.

There were many things happening in different rooms at the TRC National Events, but the federal government was for the most part absent. This absence was amplified by the prominence of provincial and municipal governments. Provincial ministers used the National Events to publicize expanded health programs and changes to education curricula, and mayors declared new naming initiatives and training for municipal police forces.

While politicians from various jurisdictions aligned themselves with the TRC against the increasingly maligned federal government, the TRC aligned itself with the work of Idle No More. At the close of the Edmonton National Event, Commissioner Murray Sinclair led the commission audience out of the Shaw Convention Centre and onto Jasper Avenue for an Idle No More march to the provincial legislature.

By consistently legislating to alienate and disenfranchise Indigenous peoples, Stephen Harper made himself an object through which Canadians could position themselves as “on the right side of history.” The temporal bracketing of the apology is blown wide on the opening page of its final report:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can be best described as ‘cultural genocide.’

Tasked with investigating the residential school system, the TRC found it to be one part of a coherent and systematic campaign to assert control over Indigenous land, bodies and resources; to build Canada. Child internment was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The goal wasn’t reformation or education, it was clearing the way for the settlement of Canada. No Indigenous people meant “no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights.” Residential schools may no longer exist, but reserves, treaties, and Aboriginal rights sure do.

Getting the relationship between Harper’s official apology and the TRC right is important precisely because of the position that the TRC and its report has taken up in the Canadian political landscape. The release of the report sparked an eruption of media coverage, academic conferences, and community events across the country. It has shifted political discourse in Canada, bringing words like settlers and Indigenous out of activist spheres. Today, politicians, public servants, and citizens alike refer to “The TRC” as though it were an official institution, endowed with the kind of national moral authority usually associated to the Supreme Court.

The TRC and the official apology are inextricably tied in the Canadian political imagination for good reason. They were part of the same set of historical processes that demanded the attention of the Canadian government and its public. The logic of progress and inevitability tells us that a wave of historical change swept over the nation, beginning with the federal government’s gesture of acknowledging our wrongs. I certainly understand the settler motivations to believe that we, and our government, simply came to our senses and decided to apologize to Indigenous peoples. However, this diminishes the work of the people — activists, journalists, politicians, educators, community leaders — who worked to generate political will and tirelessly stress the necessity of addressing this shameful part of Canadian nation-building.

Indigenous people had to sue the Canadian government for compensation, pay for the truth commission themselves, and wrench an official acknowledgement out the prime minister. The official apology may have played a role in the TRC, but primarily as an articulation of how far Canada has to go to understand its own history and its present.

* University of Toronto, Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies.

[1] Canada. House of Commons Debates. 2 June 2015. (Harper, Prime Minister, CPC).

[2] Read the full text of Canada’s “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools” here:

[3] This often-cited quote is drawn from submissions made to a parliamentary committee charged with amending the Indian Act to make school attendance mandatory. To read it in context, see Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham’s Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress (University of Toronto Press, 2013), in Appendix A3: “Duncan Campbell Scott, Notes on Indian Education.”

[4] Boyd, JA (2015). “‘Fugitive Visions’: Cultural Pseudomemory and the Death of the Indigenous Child in the Indian Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott.” Studies in Canadian Literature 40 (2), 143.

[5] All TRC publications are public domain and widely available online. A summary of Volume One was published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd (Toronto).

[6] Mosby, Ian (2013). “Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” Social History 46 (91), 145-172.

[7] “Victims of abuse mull charges,” The Vancouver Sun, 6 November 1990; “Chief urges probe into abuse of kids,” Toronto Star, 31 October 1990.

[8] Nagy, Rosemary (2014). “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 29 (2), 199–217.

[9] “Native leader demands residential school apology,” National Post, 24 April 2007.

[10] “No residential school apology, Tories say,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 27 March 2007.

[11] “Harper continues shameful legacy,” Toronto Star, 3 May 2007.

[12] Martin, Don. “Another lesson in apology politics; Are the Tories getting too good at grovelling?” National Post, 10 June, 2008.

[13] “Really Harper, Canada has no history of colonialism?” Vancouver Sun, 27 September 2009; “Shawn Atleo criticizes Stephen Harper over ‘no history of colonialism’ remark,” Georgia Straight (Vancouver), 2 October 2009l

[14] Ljunggren, David. “Every G20 nation wants to be Canada, insists PM,” Reuters, 25 September 2009; “Harper drops the ‘C-bomb’ on G20,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 October 2009.

[15] Find the full text of the prime minister’s July 14, 2006 speech here:

[16] For an incisive summary of Indigenous activism in Canada, see Glen Coulthard’s “#IdleNoMore in Historical Context,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, 24 December 2012. Online:

[17] McCue, Duncan. “Walk for Reconciliation 1 of top B.C. news stories of 2013,” CBC News, 19 December 2013.

[18] Isaac, Jamie and Decter, Leah (2012). “(Official Denial) Trade value in progress: Unsettling narratives.” West Coast Line 46(2), 162.


Boyd, JA (2015). “‘Fugitive Visions’: Cultural Pseudomemory and the Death of the Indigenous Child in the Indian Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott.” Studies in Canadian Literature 40 (2), 143.

Isaac, Jamie and Decter, Leah (2012). “(Official Denial) Trade value in progress: Unsettling narratives.” West Coast Line 46(2), 162.

Ljunggren, David. “Every G20 nation wants to be Canada, insists PM,” Reuters, 25 September 2009; “Harper drops the ‘C-bomb’ on G20,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 October 2009.

Nagy, Rosemary (2014). “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 29 (2), 199–217.

McCue, Duncan. “Walk for Reconciliation 1 of top B.C. news stories of 2013,” CBC News, 19 December 2013.

Mosby, Ian (2013). “Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” Social History 46 (91), 145-172.