University of Manitoba president David Barnard made history Oct. 27, with a statement of apology for the university’s indirect role in the residential school system.
The statement was made before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Halifax, N.S.. Barnard is the first university president to formally apologize for perpetuating the system, widely recognized as abusive and a form of aggressive assimilation.
While the university did not fund or help operate residential schools, Barnard apologized to the university’s 1,900 self-declared Aboriginal students, as well as to the U of M’s aboriginal staff, for failing “to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of Aboriginal Peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions.”
“That was a grave mistake. It is our responsibility. We are sorry,” he said.
Visibly emotional, Barnard went on to explain that the university educated “and mentored individuals who became clergy, teachers, social workers, civil servants and politicians” that carried out policies aimed at the assimilation of Aboriginal Peoples in Manitoba.
He also acknowledged the damage of the “sixties scoop,” a practice where many aboriginal children were taken from their biological families and adopted into non-aboriginal homes.
Barnard said the university is committed to ensuring that the values “of First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures and communities are included in scholarship and research across the university.”
“In order to take the next step in advancing Indigenous scholarship and the success of Indigenous people, collectively as well as individually, we must acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, apologize and move forward in a spirit of reconciliation,” he said.
Approximately 50 U of M students and staff gathered at Migizii Agamik, formerly known as Aboriginal House, on the Fort Garry campus to watch a live streaming video broadcast of Barnard’s address.
Florence Paynter, an elder-in-residence at Migizii Agamik and a survivor of the residential school system, said she felt the apology was “history in the making,” noting that the apology “extends itself to where people are being trained for the future in different fields.”
“There has to be that attitude shift overall,” she said.
Paynter said she felt the university had done a good job of fostering aboriginal achievement and being inclusive of the aboriginal community on campus, but that it would ideal if “sometime in the future” there was a full faculty of aboriginal studies at the U of M.
“I think because there is such a comfort in knowing that there are other people that really value education,” she explained
“We know that education is the way to change what we’ve been through, but having a way to incorporate [. . . ] our own histories is really key to instilling that pride our people have.”
When asked what reconciliation meant for her, Paynter explained that “it’s hard to define, and there are many facets of it.”
“[ . . . ] Each family has their own reconciliation and mine has been having to tell my children that we can’t teach them the language and being asked later by a granddaughter ‘why didn’t you teach my mom so my mom can teach me’,” she said. “I think that’s one of the emotional hurdles we had to go through.”
Mike Dorie, an arts student from Sagkeeng First Nation and co-president of the University of Manitoba Aboriginal Students Association (UMASA), said he was surprised by Barnard’s apology but thought that it was one that needed to be made.
Though too young to have gone through the residential schools system himself, Dorie said that he has done extensive research on the system and its effects on First Nations peoples.
“Everything that I’ve looked at, it’s always brought up emotions. Because it reflects back on my life, on everything that I’ve had to go through,” he said.
“Everything was affected — our language, our tradition, our culture. It was affected so badly that I feel I am a product of that loss.”
Skip Gagnon, treasurer for UMASA, said that while he saw the apology as a positive move, “as an individual and unwilling participant of the ’60s scoop [ . . . ] it doesn’t take away my memories of what happened. [ . . . ] But overall, it’s a good thing that [Barnard] has done.”
Gagnon said he felt that the U of M is doing enough work to ensure that the campus is inclusive of the aboriginal community, but pointed out “there can always be more” done.
“There are always new ideas coming forward for building relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals,” he said.
He said he thought the university could “be more vocal” about the services they offer to aboriginal students by “opening up to aboriginal people, to those who want to attend university, letting them know that it is possible and within their reach.”
“That they can do it, that [students] are welcome and there is a place that [they] can come to on campus [ . . . ] in terms of the aboriginal centre and [UMASA] lounge,” he said.
“Most faculties have some form of aboriginal student representation. I’m just not sure if [aboriginal community] outside of campus, those that are in high school that want to further their education, know what is offered here.”