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'We are sorry': University of Manitoba apologizes for keeping Indigenous remains

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The president of the University of Manitoba offered an apology to Indigenous communities Monday for the hurt the university has caused by keeping Indigenous remains.

The apology was part of a rematriation and repatriation ceremony, during which the school apologized for acquiring and housing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis ancestral remains, burial belongings, and cultural heritage.

"The university has been in the wrong relationship with First Nation, Inuit, and Métis people from our earliest days starting in the 1890s," said Michael Benarroch, the president of the school.

Benarroch said for years, the school would use the remains and belongings in the classroom laboratories and even display them, all without consent from Indigenous communities.

"For generations, colonial mindsets at our university have harmed and caused immense pain to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis people. For too long, we took, held and wielded power that was not ours to begin with. We dehumanized Indigenous peoples to justify our behaviour and failed to recognize their sovereignty and dignity,” he said, “We apologize for these past wrongs. We are sorry."

The first step in reconciliation is the university apologizing, Benarroch said, adding he appreciates the elders and knowledge keepers for working with the school to take this first step forward.

"We are committed to transforming our institution so that we can be in the right relationship with First Nation, Inuit and Métis people. We recognize we must change and we are changing. I see promise in our future."

The anthropology department at the university has been working with Indigenous communities since 2020 to repatriate the remains.

The university acquired the remains mainly through projects like the construction of the Red River Floodway, and a policy at the time directed the remains to be sent to the university.

E.J. Fontaine, the chief of Sagkeeng First Nation and the representative for the Southern Chiefs' Organization at the ceremony, said it is unfortunate that such events happened in the past.

"Our peoples' remains were taken without our permission to be used for research, profit, and display," said Fontaine. "We're happy that the university is giving back these remains to our people and that they will be rested in a place to be determined."

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said this process allows nations to begin healing.

"Our ancestors have long awaited for a process where we can start the journey of healing, and we can be restored to the powerful nation we once were and getting back the dignity that is ours," said Settee.

"I celebrate the fact that we can stand here as Indigenous people and still hold our heads up high, in spite of all that has happened."

Cathy Merrick, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, could not attend the event, but Ovide Mercredi, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, read her comments.

Merrick's comments acknowledged this was an important day in history.

"While this apology is significant, it must be followed with ongoing actions and commitments," Mercredi said on behalf of Merrick.

"We look forward to our collaboration with the University of Manitoba to ensure the respectful treatment, rematriation, and repatriation of our ancestors and cultural heritage…Reconciliation goes beyond land acknowledgments and platitudes. It requires an enduring commitment to truth-telling and a fundamental shift in thinking and practice."

Renee Cable, the minister of Advanced Education and Training, said it was important that everyone listen to the truths, even if it was hard to do so.

"Universities are responsible for fostering critical thinking, advancing research and driving meaningful action. They are spaces for challenging assumptions and promoting social justice and the wellbeing of communities," said Cable. "I commend the University of Manitoba for taking these responsibilities to heart and for ensuring they work in collaboration with Indigenous communities on the path to reconciliation."

With files from The Canadian Press

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