Action not apologies: the long lasting legacy of residential schools in Canada


Nearly within the same week, news of a problematic exam question, the hashtag #EveryChildMatters and photographs of Canadians in orange shirts surfaced the internet. First, a student at St. Paul Alternative Education Centre complained when they saw a question on an online Grade 11 social studies exam probing, “What were the positive effects of the residential schools?” The multiple choice question offered the following options: children were away from home, they learned to read, they became civilized, and they were taught manners. This all came just days before Canada celebrated Orange Shirt Day to recognize and acknowledge the legacy of residential schools.

While both events point to the effects of residential schools on Canadian history and try to make amends with the past, there is a lack of recognition for the structural and systemic discrimination that the residential schools were founded on and operated with that have contributed to the experiences of indigenous peoples today.

After the exam incident, newspapers cited apologies from the Education Minister of Alberta, superintendent of the St. Paul Education Regional Division, and the principal at St. Paul Alternative Education Centre.

“The principal has reached out to the family. We’ve also reached out to the four First Nations that we serve.”

“I want to sincerely apologize to this student, their family, and anyone else who may have been exposed to this insensitive resource. There is no excuse for it and there is no place for it in our schools,” said David Eggen.

“We are removing the inappropriate content from the resources we use to teach. We accept and take full responsibility for the use of this inappropriate material and for that we are deeply sorry,” said Glen Brodziak.

The apologies echoed one made a decade before when, on June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of Canadians to former students of residential schools (Stabler, n.d.) in an effort to acknowledge responsibility for the Residential Schools and their legacy and to set the foundation for a new relationship between “Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians” (Canada. Parliament of Canada 2008).

This is not the first time Canada apologizes. Wearing orange shirts as a symbolic gesture is kind and all, but the action lies in really reflecting and realizing that this strive for social justice and recognition of indigenous experiences comes in the everyday engagements with indigenous peoples as well as the daily acts that combat injustice (such as noticing or halting a problematic exam question).

By not discussing how the history of Canada’s genocide and erasure of culture of indigenous peoples through residential schools is present today, the state continues to partake in this act. To not tell the story of the group that is oppressed is oppressive in it of itself. The last residential school closed as recently as 1996. Some survivors of the residential schools are still alive and can recount their stories of pain and trauma. The lingering effects of residential schools live on not just by those who were victims of them but also the communities and their descendants who will learn, hopefully, about their history.

So I say enough of the apologies. The apologies have come after the incidents have already caused damage and large performative acts and apologies have come years after the genocide of indigenous folks. It is more than obvious that “the transformation of Indigenous/Settler-state relationships require political and social change as well as economic redistribution in order to “terminate … not only … economic and social subordination but also the colonial relationship” (Short 2005).

Would these apologies have risen had indigenous folks not been fighting to be recognized as human in the first place? It is oftentimes the oppressed who will call out the oppression when they see it. It’s time that those who oppress or are complicit in acts of oppression start to recognize it for themselves and do more than just apologize. It is time for them to act.


‘Every child matters’: Orange Shirt Day remembers residential school victims. (2018, September 30). Retrieved from

Montreal, M. I. (2015, June 06). Canada confronts its dark history of abuse in residential schools. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from

Press, T. C., & N. (2018, September 21). Students asked about the positive effects of residential schools. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from

Short, D. (2005). Reconciliation and the problem of internal colonialism. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 26(3), 267-282.

Stabler, J. (n.d.). Canadian Identity and Canada’s Indian Residential School Apology. Retrieved from

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