10/27/2011 02:05 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

University of Manitoba president apologizes for its role in residential schools

HALIFAX - The president of the University of Manitoba struggled to maintain his composure Thursday as he delivered a public apology for the university's role in perpetuating the damage caused by Canada's native residential schools.

David Barnard appeared before the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is holding its third round of national hearings in Halifax.

Barnard, his voice often breaking with emotion, said the university had failed to challenge the federal government's policy of forced assimilation that was the central mandate of residential schools for more than 100 years.

"That was a grave mistake," he said, pausing and taking a deep breath. "It is our responsibility. We are sorry."

He said the physical, sexual and emotional abuses that occurred at the schools were among the most deplorable acts committed at any time in Canada's history.

As well, he said the university played a role in supporting the system by educating clergy, teachers, civil servants and politicians who carried out policies that destroyed the language, culture and traditions of thousands of Metis, Inuit and members of First Nations.

"Today, the University of Manitoba adds our voice to the apologies expressed by political and religious leaders and so graciously accepted by survivors, aboriginal leaders and elders," Barnard said.

"We apologize to the people and the communities who were the victims of this misguided policy."

Barnard also said the apology was important for the university because one of its priorities is promoting indigenous achievement.

The first government-funded, church-run residential schools opened in the 1870s. The last one closed outside Regina in 1996. About 150,000 aboriginal children attended these schools, many of them forcibly taken away from their homes by the RCMP.

Phil Fontaine, former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, witnessed the apology.

A graduate of the university and a residential school survivor, Fontaine said the apology represented an important step.

"Sadly, most Canadians are simply not aware of this experience, not aware that there is a missing chapter in Canadian history — a sad, dark, tragic chapter," Fontaine said in an interview.

"While the University of Manitoba may not have been directly involved, it had an obligation to speak to the issue, and it didn't."

The churches that operated the schools started apologizing in 1986. The RCMP apologized in 2004 and the federal government did the same in 2008.

The apology from the university is unusual because it comes from an organization that wasn't directly involved in the residential school system, which included 130 schools across the country.

There were 17 federally funded Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba between 1888 and 1988.

Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of the commission, said the university's apology was one of the most important gestures the commission has received, and he dismissed those who would suggest such apologies are meaningless tokens.

"Those people are not important to this conversation if they continue to refuse to see that it is, indeed, important that this conversation continue," he told about 500 delegates to the meeting.

"There are some who will say it's time to get over it. ... The reality is that when you have been victimized by a system such as we have been victimized ... when you acknowledge the damage that's been done, it's impossible to get over it. What is important is to learn from it."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as part of a landmark $4-billion agreement reached in 2007 with survivors who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government and the churches.

The $60-million commission has a five-year mandate to document the history of Canada's native residential schools, inspire reconciliation and produce a report by 2014.