The National Apologies to Indigenous People for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA

National apologies to Indigenous people in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA have been long-debated as to whether they were sincere or just symbolic. Official apologies are often used as mechanisms to address human rights abuses. Intended to change intergroup relations by correcting the wrongdoings in the past and providing the means for political and social relations to move forward. We are going to explore the national apologies between Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA for any similarities and identify any differences. We are going to examine experiences Indigenous people have had of colonization and the apologies they received. Also, explore if there has been any major progress towards reconciliations since the apologies were made over a decade ago. Have things changed for Indigenous people for the better or is it still the same as it was before.

A government apology for a historical injustice is likely to be more comprehensive than a typical interpersonal apology. A government apology represents a formal attempt to redress severe and long-standing harm against an innocent group. Considering that these harms are more severe than most interpersonal transgressions, a simple 'sorry' is unlikely to suffice. A government apology is public and aimed at present and future audiences that include members of the non-victimized parties, and the previously victimized group. As quite a large portion of these audiences may understand the minimum about the injustice, 'everything counting as the apology must be spelled out; nothing can be taken for granted or remain ambiguous'. These formal apologies were an important step toward building a respectful new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Australia, Canada, and the United States formally apologized to their Indigenous peoples in February 2008, June 2008, and December 2009, respectively. Australia's apology took place on the 13th of February 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations members for all their pain, suffering, and forcible removal of children. Canada's apology came on 11th June 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the abuse, suffering, and generational and cultural dislocation that resulted from assimilative, government-sanctioned residential schools. The United States apology was through the Congressman 'apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect caused to Native Peoples by citizens of the United States;' and Jim Crow laws in regards to Slavery. New Zealand’s apology was a in the form of writing by the Crown in the Waikato Raupatu Bill in 1995, and again in the Deed of Settlement in 1996 and refer to land, not people as such. The Apologises made it clear that understanding and acknowledging past wrongs and their continuing impact is crucial to building stronger relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, which are at the heart of reconciliation.

The term Stolen Generation refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who were forcibly removed as children, from their families and communities by government, welfare, or church authorities and placed into institutional care or with non-Indigenous foster families. The forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children began as early as the mid- 1800s and continued until 1970. Many of these removals occurred as the result of official laws and policies aimed at assimilating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population into the wider community. The 1997 Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, found that between 1 in 10 and 3 in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the years 1910 to 1970.

Canada's history of residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Residential schools were created by Christian churches and the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert Indigenous youth and to integrate them into Canadian society. Overall, students had a negative experience at the residential schools, some that would have lasting consequences and effects. Students were isolated and their culture was disparaged or scorned. They were removed from their homes and parents and were separated from some of their siblings, as the schools were segregated according to gender. In some cases, they were forbidden to speak their first language, even in letters home to their parents. The attempt to assimilate children began upon their arrival at the schools: their hair was cut (in the case of the boys), and they were stripped of their traditional clothes and given new uniforms also given new names. Missionary staff spent a lot of time and attention on Christian practices while criticizing or denigrating Indigenous spiritual traditions. However, the schools disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among Indigenous peoples. In total, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools.

The United States had an institution of slavery for 246 years and followed it with Jim Crow laws that denied people equal opportunity under the law. There was segregation in the south and other places within the country, at least through the year 1965 when civil rights laws were passed. There were separate drinking fountains for people, with signs white and colored, different restaurants, and separate hotels. Things were the same when it came to job opportunities African-Americans were not allowed to work for some places. There were theaters that were segregated. It's tough to envision, in 2008, that such a society existed and was endorsed by law that the laws of the nation provided for segregation and enforced slavery still. Congress said it was important for Americans to apologize for slavery “so they can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people of the United States.” It was passed on the day before June tenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in 1865.

The Indigenous people of New Zealand (Maori) had the Treaty of Waitangi in place since 1840 to ensure that native title survived colonization, however, Maori land has been greatly reduced through confiscation and land sales by the Crown. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth, personally signed the Waikato Raupatu Bill, which contains an apology by the Crown to the Tainui people for the military invasion of their lands in 1863. Also, in 1996 the Whakatohea people and the Crown signed a Deed of Settlement which included an apology from the government for misdeeds in 1865 when British colonizers confiscated land in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate treaty breaches since 1975 and the Treaty of Waitangi (Amendment) Act 1985 empowered the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims of treaty breaches by the Crown since 1840.

New Zealand stands out the most with differences of all the countries as the Maori people were treated far better than any other country. Whether this is due to having a Treaty in place from an early stage of colonization remains unknown. Australia, Canada, and the United States are very similar in the way they treated their Indigenous peoples, with the removal of children from families, not being allowed to practice their culture, being treated unfairly due to their skin color or race. All these apologies were offered as part of broader processes of reconciliation being pursued by these nations in apparent attempts to address the legacies of past injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, despite being a huge stepping stone in advancing reconciliation, almost a decade later, it is evident that not much has changed for Indigenous peoples.

These four nations share a colonial history associated primarily with the British that commenced between 400 and 500 years ago in the Northern hemisphere (US, Canada) and just over 220 years ago in the Southern hemisphere (Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand). Despite the vast difference in time and place, familiar stories of the colonization experience and its lasting impact on the health status and challenges faced today in striving for recovery emerge as a shared legacy of unfinished business. Profound health and social inequities persist between Indigenous and non-indigenous populations of all four nations, as this paper and other evidence documents extensively. Gaps between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples are not only clear in health status, but also in socioeconomic status, education, employment, environmental and social health, and most other social determinants of health. This level of material disadvantage comes on top of persisting intergenerational grief and loss, some from the denial of the impacts of colonization on Indigenous peoples, and others from harm, dominating government policy.

Many Stolen Generations members felt that their pain and suffering were acknowledged and that the nation understood the need to right the wrongs of the past. The Apology lays the groundwork for us to work more effectively towards achieving better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. However, while it was a historic step, it was only a starting point. A comprehensive formal process of truth-telling about our shared history is necessary to achieve justice and thereby healing and to ensure that past wrongs are never repeated. In Canada since the last residential school closed in 1996, former students have demanded recognition and restitution, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement


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07 July 2022
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