In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that the government offer a formal statement of apology for past wrongdoing and injustice perpetrated against Canadian Aboriginal peoples. This apology was, in the commission's opinion, a necessary first step on the road to a renewal of the relationship between Canada's Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Minister of Indian Affairs Jane Stewart issued this "Statement of Reconciliation" on behalf of the federal government in a January 1998 speech.
The content of the wide-ranging statement included a formal recognition of the ancient historical presence of the First Nations on this continent as well as an admission of the contribution of Native peoples to the survival of European newcomers and development of the nation. Acknowledgement was made of the ill treatment meted out to Aboriginal peoples throughout the period of contact, including the disruption and destruction of Native cultures, the suppression of Natives languages, and the erosion of existing political, economic, and social systems. The residential school system was singled out as a particularly oppressive aspect of non-Aboriginal intrusion into Aboriginal life. More specifically, the statement explicitly recognized the reprehensible physical and sexual abuse that existed in these schools.
The federal government bolstered the formal statement of reconciliation with a commitment to work with all Native peoples, the churches, and related parties to rectify the damage done under the auspices of the residential school system. To this end, a $350 million healing fund for victims was established. The government also created an additional $250 million fund to assist Native economic development, the establishment of self-government, the creation of employment, and the provision of social services. A very specific commitment was made to the Métis community in the promise to re-evaluate the role of Louis Riel in Canadian history. The "Statement of Reconciliation" also included an explicit rejection of the long-standing official policy of assimilation of the Native peoples.
Composed in consultation with Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, a man with personal and negative experience with the residential school system, the statement won the official approval of the assembly. Others found it less satisfactory. Some Natives decried the limited nature of the statement, demanding a more comprehensive acknowledgment of the assault on Native cultures and societies. The royal commission had identified many of these issues in regard to land claims, self-government, and Indian status. The question of status is of particular importance as official definitions had denied their identity to many Natives in Canada. Some critics have also pointed out that the $600 million commitment offered in this statement was well below the royal commission's recommended levels of expenditure. Other critics have focused on the one-sided nature of the statement. They claim that by focusing entirely on the negative aspects of the residential school system, its positive contributions to Native life have been ignored. Indeed, the suggestion has been made that the result of such a statement is to exacerbate, rather than diminish, the gulf between Native and non-Native peoples.
As a formal declaration of recognition and regret, the Statement of Reconciliation is a step in the direction of the renewal so emphatically demanded by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It has not, however, fully resolved Native grievances. The mixed reaction to the statement indicates that there are many who remain dissatisfied with the government's official response.