Stephen Harper’s Apology and the Forgotten Residential Schools of Labrador

Holly Jarrett's life sheds light on the long shadow of Labrador's residential schools.

Jun 2 2015, 9:53pm

Holly while speaking on the Hill, March 5, 2014. All photos provided by Holly Jarrett unless otherwise specified


March 5, 2014, Holly Jarrett stepped up to a microphone on Parliament Hill. The temperature was just below zero, but she warded off the chill with a brown canvas jacket and a pink knitted scarf looped around her neck. Her hair was cut in an asymmetrical bob, dyed a deep red with black underneath.

Holly gripped the microphone firmly. She had never spoken to such a large crowd before and she was not yet an activist, but she was determined to speak now for her cousin Loretta Saunders, who had disappeared less than a month before, and whose body had been found just days earlier.

Holly had spent the latter half of February hoping her missing cousin would be found safe. In the last six days, with that hope dashed utterly, her thoughts wavered between two possibilities. Would her beloved cousin's murder galvanize her resolve? Or would it tip her into exhaustion and defeat?

She'd spent those six days recollecting the one-liners that her father—gone two years now, from cancer—would frequently dispense by way of advice. One in particular came to mind:

If you do the right thing, good things will come to you.

Holly looked at the crowd in front of her. She began to choke up. Then she gripped the microphone firmly and began to speak.

Holly with her anansiak


Holly Jarrett is the child of two very different worlds, and her childhood can be read as a long struggle to reconcile these differences.

She was born on April Fools' Day, 1973 on the US Air Force Base in Goose Bay, Labrador, to an American father and an Inuk mother. She spent the first two years of her life in Labrador and the next four in Michigan. Then her parents separated, and she moved back north to Goose Bay with her mother.

In Goose Bay, the family's finances were strained, and six-year-old Holly was often hungry, but she didn't focus on what she didn't have. Instead, she treasured the time she spent with her anansiak—her Inuk grandmother. She was a small, fragile-looking woman who smiled often and dispensed a seemingly endless stream of individually-wrapped peppermint twists. The promise of a single candy could coax Holly to attend Sunday services at the Moravian Church. After church, they might lie together on her anansiak's bed, little spines from the cheap feather pillows poking at their skin as they read the Bible, or an Avon catalogue, or nothing at all.

They spoke Inuktitut to each other. Sometimes, Holly's anansiak would describe her dreams. Always she would add: "You're going to have dreams one day too. It's a big gift, you have to remember that."

Holly was close to anansiak, but shortly before her ninth birthday, her anansiak died. So Holly started grade three in Manitou Beach, Michigan, back with her father.

In 1980, there were 2,154 people living in the Manitou Beach-Devils Lake area. All but 20 were white. According to the United States Census Bureau, these last 20 included four American Indians, four Asian Indians, 12 "others" and zero Inuit.

In Michigan, Holly didn't think of herself as an Inuk. Her use of Inuktitut dwindled to a few "code words" that she and her father might exchange for a laugh. For example, if Holly farted, her father might tease her: "Did you nillik?" Anything more profound was, for Holly, a painful reminder of her lost anansiak. She began to spend holidays and summers with her mother, now living in Ottawa.

During these visits, Holly began to learn about "the dorm," where her mother had gone to school. Back in Goose Bay, Holly had heard only snippets of conversation about the place, and her young mind had envisioned a kind of welcoming private girls' school. But now, as her questions became more frequent—and more pointed—the vision changed for the worse: the girls weren't allowed to speak Inuktitut; their hair was cut against their will; they were told they were dirty; and they were even forced to eat their own vomit. All of Holly's questions collapsed to a single question: Why?

Holly's first Am I Next poster


On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood before Parliament to apologize to students of Canada's Indian residential school system. For more than a century, the schools had been the government's main tool for assimilation and "civilization." More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken—often forcibly—from their families and communities and placed in these institutions, where many were subjected to emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. The last residential school only closed its doors in the 1990s.

"Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," Harper told Parliament.

The apology came almost a year after the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canada's history. Under the terms of this agreement, former students of the residential schools would receive financial compensation and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would begin its work. The Commission's mandate: to uncover the facts about residential schools and to inform all Canadians. The second part of this mandate was, perhaps, the greater challenge, given the low awareness of the issue—verified by a national survey. "There is a need to increase public awareness and understanding of the history of residential schools," the Commission wrote in its interim report in 2012, adding, "reconciliation will come through the education system."

The Commission's work has documented not only the horrors of the schools themselves, but also their continuing impact: "It is clear that one of the greatest impacts of residential schools is the breakdown of family relationships [...] that impact continues to be seen to this day; it is evidenced in high rates of child apprehensions and youth involvement in crime." Indeed, just this past April, a study by The Cedar Project looked at young Aboriginal women in British Columbia, and found that women who had a parent at a residential school were 2.35 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who did not. Only a fifth of those assaulted received any types of counselling, the study also found.

But Harper's 2008 apology contained a curious omission. He said the "schools were located in every province and territory, except Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island." He did not specifically name Labrador.

The island of Newfoundland and the mainland territory of Labrador comprise a single province. It was true that there were never any Indian residential schools in Newfoundland—but there were five in Labrador, and Holly's mother was forced to attend one of them. The catch—and a possible explanation for the wording of Harper's apology—is that these schools were established before 1949, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada as a province.

Whatever its motivation, Labrador's omission had a financial consequence. The compensation offered to former students of residential schools was not extended to the students of the Labrador schools. (Also excluded were students who attended residential day schools and a number of Métis settlements).

TRC commissioner Marie Wilson calls this a "kind of legal technicality." She notes the TRC operates separately from the financial elements of the settlement. "We know that there were schools in Labrador; whether they're on an approved list for compensation or not doesn't change the fact that there were schools." She adds: "people there have things they want to say to us." She has personally led TRC hearings in Goose Bay and Nain.

Holly has a different take: "It's like 'we don't think you're valid enough to compensate for your loss and tragedy, but we'll let you talk about it and we'll let everyone know about it.'"

Her view is corroborated by several survivors of Labrador's residential schools, many of whom have shared their stories and experiences with the TRC. For these people, the lack of apology remains an obstacle to healing.

"I think the bigger side of it is it's not giving them the closure they need," says Sarah Leo, president of the Nunatsiavut government in Labrador. "They're not getting their reconciliation personally."

So much for the non-financial side of the agreement. As for the financial side, Leo says, one of the most helpful things Ottawa could do for Labrador's survivors now is to help bring a swifter resolution to an ongoing class action.

In December 2011, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal upheld a decision to certify a class action—estimated to include from 5,000 to 6,000 members—arguing the Canadian federal government was a participant in the attempt to "obliterate Aboriginal languages, traditions and beliefs in Labrador, through requirement that school children reside at institutions isolated from their families and communities." These claims have not been proven in court.

Mediation is being held June 9 and 10 in St. John's. If it is not successful, a trial is scheduled to begin in September; it is expected to last until February 2016. A federal judge will rule in the coming months as to whether to deem a lawsuit by residential day school survivors a class action.

Holly with all four kids, from left to right: Jaelyn, Kyran, Jasmyn, and Jordyn


At the age of 14, Holly went to live with her mother in Ottawa. It felt like the obvious choice for a teenager testing the limits of her autonomy: she wanted her freedom, and her father, the military man, was the more controlling parent.

But Holly struggled through Grade 9, and in Grade 10, she was raped.

She told no one. She tried to kill herself. That summer—finding herself alive, but feeling alone—she moved back to Michigan. She was resolved to be a model daughter and a well-behaved teenager, and to make a fresh start.

Despite her resolution, it seemed that Holly's plan was not to be. She skipped school frequently and her grades fell. But as graduation approached, she read John Steinbeck's novella The Pearl for her English class. In that story, in which greed and evil bedevil a pearl diver named Kino, one passage in particular appealed to Holly, still struggling in the aftermath of a sexual assault she felt unable to discuss:

But Kino had lost his old world and he must clamber on to a new one. For his dream of the future was real and never to be destroyed, and he had said 'I will go,' and that made a real thing too. To determine to go and to say it was to be halfway there.

To speak aloud the words I was molested or I was raped would be to acknowledge their reality in a way that Holly—young, uncertain, unhappy, and isolated—couldn't yet handle. She couldn't force the words out of her mouth. She wasn't halfway there—at least, not yet. But at the age of 18, she graduated from high school.

The next year, Holly got pregnant. She gave birth to a girl she named Jordyn. This was the beginning of a difficult period in which Holly oscillated between her father's world in Michigan and her mother's in Ottawa, without feeling able to confide in either parent about the sexual trauma she'd suffered.

At 23, living in Michigan, Holly found herself pregnant again. Not knowing how to tell her father, she packed her bags, called her mother—now back in Labrador—and asked her to arrange a traditional adoption. But when she felt the baby moving inside her, Holly was overcome by the powerful urge meet her child.

Holly moved to Ottawa. Her second daughter, Jaelyn, arrived in May of 1997. Jaelyn was perfect, Holly thought, her saving grace: Jaelyn's birth made Holly want something better in life for herself and for her two young girls.

In Ottawa, Holly found employment as a receptionist and mail clerk for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (which ceased all operations last year). It was only menial work, but it helped to pay down her debts, and as she recalls, it put "everything in perspective." She found herself surrounded by smart Aboriginal men and women, working diligently to better their lives and the lives of Aboriginal people across Canada. She paid attention to them. And she began to learn.

For Holly, the experience was like completing a jigsaw puzzle. Previously separate things began to merge into a cohesive whole: colonialism, her mother's residential school experience; her own experiences with poverty and violence; and the dawning understanding of what it is to be an Inuit person, what disadvantages it can carry in a system built and dominated by white people.

Financially, however, Holly continued to struggle. Most of her earnings went straight to those who cared for Jordyn and Jaelyn. And so, when Holly's mother offered to take Jaelyn, then 18 months old, for a year, and at the same time Jordyn's father agreed to take her for a year, Holly accepted the offers. For one year, Holly's babies could live with family while she paid off her debts, found reasonable accommodation for her family, and so—she hoped—get settled once and for all.

Loretta Saunders


Holly's dream was not yet to be. During her child-free year, she eliminated her debts and amassed a small amount of savings. What she didn't realize was that the price of airfare from Ottawa to Nain, Labrador, to pick up Jaelyn would consume all her savings. There would be nothing left for the return flight to Ottawa, for rent, or for the childcare costs that she would soon, once again, have to bear. In the end, it was a one-way flight.

Within a year of arriving in Nain, she met someone she described as a "true, traditional Inuk man." The pair commiserated over their difficult lives. He'd been in trouble with the law and was a recovering alcoholic, but he hunted and he fished and he spoke Inuktitut, and for the first time since her anansiak died, it didn't hurt Holly to hear the language spoken aloud.

The couple lived together in Nain. In July 2001, their daughter Jasmyn was born. In September 2002, they moved to Goose Bay so that Holly—whose work at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation had awakened something within her—could work in a group home and study youth and adult correctional services at the College of the North Atlantic.

In Goose Bay, Holly began to spend time with her cousin Loretta Saunders, 14 years her junior. Loretta loved children, Holly says, and she was happy to babysit Holly's three girls. And it was Loretta, she says, who stepped in to help when Jasmyn's father started drinking again and Holly decided to leave him.

Later still, Loretta tried to step in when Holly fell into a downward spiral, partying with younger friends, and agreeing—after becoming pregnant with what would be her fourth child—to try to turn a one-night stand into a lasting relationship.

"You're acting fucking crazy, Holly," Holly remembers Loretta saying.

Loretta never swears, she thought. The realization penetrated her apathy. Wasn't she,

Holly, supposed to be the role model?

Loretta kept her distance after that, and she didn't come back until Kyran, Holly's first and only boy, was born in October 2004. Loretta, Holly recalls with a laugh, never could stay away from babies.

After Kyran's birth, Holly struggled and by spring 2005, Child, Youth and Family Services took her children away—as it turned out, for a year.

The following spring, deprived of her children, Holly accompanied Loretta on a flight from Goose Bay to St. John's. At the airport, waiting for the flight that would take them southeast across Labrador to Newfoundland, she remembers Loretta asking: "Holly, I just don't understand. You're such a strong woman and you're smart and you know your stuff... how come your kids are gone?"

Holly's reply may have surprised both cousins: "People who are privileged are privileged because they haven't had those innate human rights taken away. My grandmother had her daughter taken away from her, not because she was a bad mom, not because she wasn't doing the best she could, but because somebody who wasn't Inuk didn't think she should have her daughter."

Loretta, Holly remembers, had a way of listening—mouth hanging slightly agape, body pitched forward, eyes slanted in concentration—that made Holly certain she was being heard.

"Keep in contact," Holly said when they arrived.

Loretta met her eyes. "I will, I promise."

Later that year, Holly's children were returned to her, but they were taken away again for several months in 2007. An aunt warned her to reclaim her children and get out: make a new life away from Labrador. By Canada Day 2008, Holly did just that: Jordyn and Jaelyn

went to an aunt in Toronto, while Holly moved to Ottawa with the younger children.

In February 2014, Holly was still living with Jasmyn and Kyran, now in a house in Cornwall, Ontario. She'd co-leased the house with a boyfriend who'd split when she realized he'd been cheating on her.

Loretta, meanwhile, was finishing her degree in criminology at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had written a thesis proposal on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

On Monday, February 17, a cousin in Labrador texted Holly: "Loretta is missing in Halifax."

Holly typed back: "What?"

Again: "Loretta is missing in Halifax."

Loretta's boyfriend had last seen her four days earlier, on the morning of February 13, when she'd borrowed his keys to check on her apartment. She'd been subletting it to a couple—Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry—since mid-January.

That was the last time anyone saw her.

A day after Holly learned her cousin was missing, Loretta's car turned up in Harrow, Ontario, three provinces away and a seven-hour drive west of Holly in Cornwall . Henneberry and Leggette were arrested for possession of stolen property.

On February 26, with Henneberry's assistance, police discovered Loretta's frozen corpse in a hockey bag just off the TransCanada Highway in New Brunswick.

Holly cooking supper for the kids, first week in the new apartment in February 2015. Photo by Jane Gerster


Facing the crowd on Parliament Hill, gripping the microphone, Holly recalled her cousin as she spoke.

"Left there, a young, promising, talented, contributing Aboriginal citizen of our country, of my community and my family, left on the side of the road... our precious little girl who fought for justice for the very silent population of girls she's now a part of."

"These women are not statistics. These women are loved and cherished."

She said: "I made a speech because I'm very nervous... I see a lot of long faces but I know that [Loretta] would be happier with a lot of smiles, a lot of kindness."

The night before, on, Holly had started a petition calling for the national inquiry that Loretta had been seeking. "Our family is gathering strength," Holly wrote, "and we will not let her death be in vain. We will fight to complete Loretta's unfinished work."

By the time she stood on Parliament Hill, her petition had already gained thousands of signatures, but Holly wanted to do more. Losing Loretta had been a most brutal lesson: this is "the reality of what can happen because we're marginalized. I've been marginalized in Canada."

The following June, Marlene Bird, a Cree woman in Saskatchewan, was beaten and set on fire. Her legs had to be amputated.

In August, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled in a bag from the Red River in Winnipeg. "Society should be horrified," said police Sgt. John O'Donovan at the time.

Both atrocities received significant media attention and in September, amid the outrage, Holly launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #AmINext, inspired by the #AmINext tweets that followed the 2012 shooting of Travyon Martin, a black American teenager. The hashtag seemed ideal to Holly, the more so because of its acronym: AIN. Ain is an Inuktitut term of endearment—something Holly said to her anansiak, to her father, and something she now says to her children.

Holly posted a photo of herself holding a piece of paper with the words: Am I next? She posted a photo of Jasmyn holding that same piece of paper. Her campaign went viral almost immediately.

In the wake of Tina Fontaine's murder, Prime Minister Harper said that the growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women—nearly 1,200 over 30 years, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—was not a "sociological phenomenon" but a "crime." Harper told his audience that his government is addressing crime. But Holly's campaign called Harper's words into question.

"She hopes the chilling words, 'Am I next?' will frighten the nation into action," read one article about Holly's campaign.

"It's the heartbreaking question of our time," read another, "at least, in Canada."

Holly in college


It's been over a year since Loretta was found dead. The scheduled trial of her accused killers was pre-empted in April when they each entered a guilty plea: Leggette to first-degree murder and Henneberry to second-degree murder. For Holly, it was the hardest week since the week Loretta's body was found. But there was relief in the pair's admissions of guilt, she says, just as there was a perverse relief in finding her cousin: at least, "we know what happened."

Leggette is automatically sentenced to life in prison, and is eligible for parole in 25 years. Henneberry has been sentenced to life in prison, and is eligible for parole in 10.

"Loretta Saunders had a hopeful future ahead of her," wrote the judge in his sentencing decision, "all those who knew Loretta Saunders describe her as a caring and wonderful person who was determined to make the best of her life and to help those around her."

"If anything," Holly says, "Loretta's death pulled—I hate saying that—but it pulled everyone together and it showed us how strong we are and how resilient we can be."

With Loretta on her mind and a situation living with a male friend gone sour, Holly moved herself and her family into a women's shelter in Chelsea, Quebec late last year and later moved into an apartment in Wakefield.

Holly has a job now serving tables at the restaurant at the end of her driveway. In the fall of 2016, she plans to go to Carleton University to study law. She just bought another car—"a crappy, little car like the last one"—and she knows that just having enough money to replace a worn-out car is a luxury that would have felt impossible this time last year.

In February, she was considering taking a step back from activism, but she knows now that she can't. "It's a part of who I am now. I can't change it and I'll always speak out about it.... you don't step out of it," she says, "but you do learn to take better care of yourself... to deal with the feelings and process them."

Holly thinks about the idea of reconciliation, about Labrador's residential school survivors waiting on their apology and their compensation. "I think Labrador and especially the Indigenous populations in Labrador, feel like they're the low man on the totem pole already," she says, but, "we keep fighting back and we don't stop and every year there's another little glimmer of hope."

Her voice is lighter, her tone friendlier, than a few months ago. She says she's been asked to join the committee for the Ottawa chapter of Walking With Our Sisters, an art installation commemorating the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls of North America. She'll work alongside her cousin, one of Loretta's sisters.

There's a federal election coming this fall. In the summer, Holly wants to campaign for Indigenous voting. This seems to run in the family: recently, Kyran got into a debate about politics in his fifth grade class. Holly laughs to imagine it, but mostly it makes her proud: her boy, learning and teaching and interacting.

Reconciliation, as the TRC says, will come through education.

Follow Jane Gerster on Twitter.

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