'We are sorry.'
Through hundreds of words, through tears from survivors and spectators, from the raw emotion that choked the normally confident voice of University of Manitoba president David Barnard, it all came down to those three words.
The U of M delivered a historic apology Thursday in Halifax to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the university's role in educating some of the clergy, teachers, social workers, civil servants and politicians who ran the residential schools system.
And Barnard apologized because the university both failed to recognize and failed to challenge the forced assimilation of Manitoba's aboriginal people "and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions."
No other university has stood before the people of Canada and said it was sorry for the role it played in residential schools.
"I did have to stop and compose myself," Barnard said later. "This is one of the most deeply personal emotional things I've been involved in."
He's heard residential school stories from survivors among his friends and colleagues, said Barnard. The U of M thought long and hard about what he would say to the commission, Barnard said. "We wanted to be careful and respectful in what we said."
And the university wanted to make it clear Barnard's act of reconciliation was just one step in moving forward, he said. "It's hard to look back and see what could have been done differently" decades ago, Barnard said in an interview. Instead, the U of M needs to look at what it can do looking forward, he said.
Commission chairman Murray Sinclair, Manitoba's chief justice and a U of M grad, told the national hearing the university's apology "is one of the more important gestures we have received as a commission."
Sinclair said residential schools taught aboriginal children they were inferior and their culture, language and traditions were irrelevant. But the mainstream school system also taught non-aboriginal children the same thing about aboriginal people, Sinclair said.
Sinclair said some people still believe in what residential schools stood for, and some just want aboriginal people "to get over it."
"It's impossible to get over it, to forget about it. What's important is to learn from it," Sinclair said. "It is through the education system that change will occur."
Barnard's address was broadcast throughout the U of M's campuses, including to a hushed crowd in Migizii Agamik, formerly Aboriginal House -- hushed, rapt, but with some muffled sobbing.
Carl Stone, an adviser to aboriginal students who was forced into residential day schools in Libau and Selkirk, said he had not expected the apology Barnard made to include the U of M's staff. "I said, 'Hey, that's me,' " Stone told students and staff who gathered to watch.
"It really meant a lot," said Mike Dorie, president of the U of M Aboriginal Students Association. "This is going to change history -- it really was emotional.
"It's going to affect everybody. People are going to be looking upon us to see what we do next," said Dorie, an arts student from Sagkeeng First Nation who hopes to enrol in social work.
"We'll begin to change how we teach," Dorie said.
"It'll be me coming here to learn about me, then taking that back."
Elder-in-residence and residential schools survivor Florence Paynter, from Sandy Bay First Nation, was moved by Barnard's message.
"The door has really, really been opened. I felt the sincerity of the president," she said.
Paynter said an apology can't just be lip service -- a real partnership must follow. "There's still a little hesitation on the part of students -- 'Is this real?' We've been burned many times," Paynter said.
Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson called the apology "a brave move" on the part of the institution and its leader.
"The University of Manitoba and Dr. Barnard took a leadership role and I think that they should be commended," he said. Robinson said the apology helps to educate people about an "important black eye in our history."
University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy said in an interview Thursday he had addressed the commission here in June 2010, when he recognized the impact of residential schools, promised a first-class education for aboriginal students and described scholarships for survivors and their descendants.
As for Barnard's taking responsibility for educating people who ran the residential schools, said Axworthy, "I don't know how you find those records. They must have a database to make that kind of assessment."