Canada’s Prime Minister called it “a long overdue apology.”
Standing at a podium in Happy Valley Goose Bay on Friday in front of a room of residential school survivors and their families, Justin Trudeau said, “To you all, we are sorry.”
In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s horrific history of residential schools, offering a $2 billion dollar compensation package, but survivors of five schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were left out because the province hadn’t officially joined Canada until 1949. Those survivors brought a lawsuit against the Canadian government, demanding an apology and compensation. The government spent nearly a decade fighting them in court before finally agreeing last year to $50 million in compensation.
On Friday, Trudeau apologized, allowing his government to tick off one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations — to settle with plaintiffs not included in the 2008 scheme.
Trudeau acknowledged that, like other residential school survivors across the country, Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador were separated from their families on promises of safety and a better life. They were placed into schools that cut their hair, punished them for speaking their language, subjected them to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, and told them they were inferior.
“We know this because of the exceptional courage and strength of the survivors,” Trudeau said. “…These are the hard truths that are part of Canada’s history. These are the hard truths we must confront as a society.”
“I accept the apology on behalf of the residential school survivors, even though some may not want me to”
Following his words, residential school survivor Toby Obed walked onto the stage with his arms in the air, yelling “We did it!” as the crowd cheered and whistled. Obed was forced into residential school at age three with his siblings, and was subjected to sexual abuse, according to CBC. Obed told CBC he was prepared to turn down Trudeau’s apology if he didn’t like his words.
“I accept the apology on behalf of the residential school survivors, even though some may not want me to,” Obed said.
“Because I come from a patient and forgiving culture, I think it is proper for us to accept the apology from the government of Canada,” he said, his words punctuated with sobs.
“My sister, I love you,” he said, referring to a sister he hasn’t seen in more than three decades because they were separated by the residential school and foster care systems.
Trudeau placed tissues on the podium next to him.
“We got our apology.”
“This apology is an important part of the healing,” Obed said. “Today the survivors of Newfoundland and Labrador, we can finally feel a part of the community of survivors nationwide across Canada. We can finally feel a part of the rest of Canada.
“We got our apology.”
Innu Nation boycotts apology
Although many residential school survivors and their families attended the ceremony Friday in Happy Valley Goose Bay, there was one notable absence. The Innu Nation boycotted Trudeau’s apology, saying children are still being taken from their homes today.
Innu Nation Grand Chief Greg Rich told APTN that leaders had discussed the apology with community members and decided to reject it because it did not include survivors of the Sixties Scoop and children who are disproportionately placed in the foster care system today.
This year, 265 Innu children of a population of 2200 Innu people were in foster care, according to APTN.
“We were beaten by the teachers and also by the nuns,” Rich told VICE News of his time at one of the schools. The Mushuau Innu School in Davis Inlet burned down in the 1970s and was replaced by another school.
“I can remember a teacher hitting me on the face with his fist because I didn’t want to return the volleyball,” Rich said. “There are lots of stories like that, and I don’t want to share some of them because they are too personal” he said. “None of them have been brought to justice.”
He said the foster care system is repeating many of the same problems as the residential school system, such as the loss of culture. “When they come home, they’re different now,” he says of the children. “They lose their identity and they lose connection with their family. …Most importantly, they lose their language.”
“Frankly, I don’t think Canada is truly ready to make an apology to Innu if it does not include recognition of other damages done to our people — I’m not satisfied that Canada understands yet what it has done to Innu and what it is still doing,” Rich said in a statement sent to VICE News.
“What the apology doesn’t recognize is that those dormitories [the five schools] are far from the whole story for the Innu,” Mushuau Innu Chief John Nui said in the statement. “Innu were abused in those schools, but also many Innu were abused in other places. The abuse of Innu children in Roman Catholic schools and in the homes of missionaries and teachers in our communities of Sheshatsiu and Davis Inlet is not being recognized and hasn’t been dealt with. Other Innu children were sent to Mount Cashel and abused there. When is the rest of our story going to be recognized?