Nearly four years ago on June 11, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons to deliver a formal apology to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who had attended residential schools throughout Canada.
However the Government of Canada’s apology didn’t extend to all groups and left out Aboriginal populations of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The residential school programs operated as federally run institutions serving the purpose of eradicating Aboriginal identity. The Government made it legal to force Indigenous children from their way of life, their families, their homes to be placed in these schools/institutions where they would not see their families for months, years, and some never again.
Those who ran the schools were never reprimanded or held legally accountable for the years of neglect, abuse and lingering cultural genocide that were inflicted in the years the residential schools operated that enforced New World ideologies.
The last federally funded residential school in Canada was closed in 1996.
On the day of the apology, the three aboriginal groups across Newfoundland and Labrador watched as PM Harper’s formal speech failed to consider the women and men who experienced the same destructive policies that were set out in these schools.
At the time, the federal government said that because Newfoundland did not become a part of Canada until 1949, they were not accountable for the victims of this province.
Boarding school is a term most familiarly used to describe residential schools in Labrador.
The infamous boarding schools that Inuit children were sent away to were Lockwood school located in Cartwright and Yale School – Grenfell School in North West River.
Shirley Flowers, is an Inuit residential school survivor from the Nunatsiavut community of Rigolet, Labrador. Ms. Flowers said she once written a letter to a former Newfoundland and Labrador senator stating her frustration with the fact that the experiences of her people were not recognized in the residential school apology only to have the same lack of recognition given on behalf of the province by replying that boarding schools were not a part of the residential school system.
Ms. Flowers told the Labradorian, it is only now she says she is beginning to be able to speak out about her experience in public.
“We need Canada to hear our story too,” Ms. Flowers said at the community open house of the Legacy of Hope exhibition titled, “We were so far away: The Inuit Residential School experience.”
The Legacy of Hope Foundation is a national Aboriginal charitable organization whose purposes are to educate, raise awareness and understanding of the legacy of residential schools, including the effects and intergenerational impacts on First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, and to support the ongoing healing process of Residential School Survivors. Most recently the exhibition toured the communities of Nain, Rigolet and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“Sometimes it’s been pretty tough to speak out. I have a fear of authority figures but I have to speak out, and I will continue to do so, ” Ms. Flowers said.
Ms. Flowers' experience in the residential school system was brief but no less important to tell. Like thousands of other Aboriginal children Flowers said in her experience she felt she didn’t have a choice to either stay home with her family or to be taken away and sent to school for several months from the only community she ever known.
However, it wasn’t long after being relocated to the institution in North West River that she ran away from the school and hitched hiked to catch the first ferry in Goose Bay onto Rigolet and never looked back.
“I always say I was born into that system. My mother was in residential school – she was taken when she was a young girl but she didn’t come home till she was a young woman.
She wasn’t allowed to go home even in the summers as she was kept to work for the mission. So I always considered that she was a slave because she lost her freedom and certainly she never got paid for all of the hard work she did, ” Ms. Flowers explained.
Ms. Flowers' mother spent about 11 years in residential schools and was away at the school when her father died.
When Ms. Flowers' mother left boarding school in North West River and returned to her home, she met her husband and started a family. However, the legacy continued to impact the family as Ms. Flowers along with her seven siblings began to be sent off to boarding schools in North West River.
“After I was born, I saw them leave and I saw what was happening in my home. I saw my mother grieve because her children were gone. And it was the same, every fall, the same feeling – that loneliness, that dread, that sadness, and I was witness to that until I went.”
At 13 years old, Ms. Flowers remembers packing her belongings in a small suitcase (which she still has today) and said goodbye to her family.
“I know that going to school when you were 16 was compulsory - it was a law, so that is what we had to do, ” said Ms. Flowers. “I knew that we had to go because my brothers and sisters all went, that was it, that was the life back then. I know that some of the siblings before me struggled with going there.”
Ms. Flowers recalled, at one point over the course of those years, a sibling once returned home without consent from the school officials and recalled what she described as a threatening letter from the mission. “I think a lot of people were threatened that they would lose family allowance or things like that if your children didn’t go. So that was a big threat and would be a big loss and besides it was the law and nobody dared to you know.”
“I wrote a poem a while ago that says a lot about it.”
When it came time for Ms. Flowers to be sent to attend the school she says she remembers being ‘quite scared’ but also excited.
“I know, my siblings, when they came back they were changed and I thought…I guess I thought they were cool and whatever – they were different. I expected I would experience that too and that it would come easy. But it didn’t come easy when I left.”
Ms. Flowers said once she arrived to the school her thoughts quickly changed. She approached a person of authority shortly after arriving to the school and told them she wanted to go home.
“I was getting sick, I was getting physically sick. I was quite homesick and I was getting physically sick from it and they never even spoke to me, answered me or nothing – just drove away and I was just standing there crying in this big cloud of dust and that was it.”
The following day, Ms. Flowers said children from Rigolet including her were called in to a room to speak with the head of the school.
“I guess it was because I was kicking up a fuss and trying to go home that all the Rigolet kids got called in and we were told to ‘give it up’ – we’re not going anywhere and this is it and to stop and I wasn’t going to get home anyway, so I just had to ‘give it up.’”
Ms. Flowers said the meeting stopped her from protesting to go home for the rest of her time at the school that year. But the following year when she returned to North West River, Ms. Flowers said she began getting sick once again and fell ill with what she believes was a chest infection or pneumonia.
“I remember being in bed about a week, I was delirious, I was just really, really sick and no body took me to the hospital,” said Ms. Flowers. “Soon as I got strong enough I ran away and I ran all the way home and I never went back after.”
Ms. Flowers said there were incidences during her duration at the school in which she remembers ‘house parents’ being verbally and physically abusive and remembers instances of yelling and screaming in her face and throwing things at students.
“Certainly there was not a lot of compassion or love,” said Ms. Flowers.
“I remember one time too, I drove a splinter under my nail, way in under my nail. We were next door to the hospital and I asked to go to get it took out. But the ‘house father’ at the time just took out his pocket-knife and out she comes. I don’t think he intended to physically abuse me but it was certainly painful and a bit negligent on his part I would say.”
Aboriginal language loss was greatly affected by the residential school system. Ms. Flowers, like her mother, didn’t have the opportunity to speak the Inuktitut language.
Ms. Flowers said there is no doubt that the residential school experience was a part of the destruction of the language loss being experienced in many of the Inuit communities and impacted the culture.
“People were told that they couldn’t speak their language and I think it was wrong. I think people became ashamed of being Inuit and certainly it passed on down through the generations. But today I guess people are gaining more pride in their history and heritage but I think it had a huge impact on people.”
Ms. Flowers said she will continue to tell her story with others who will take the time to listen and understand what impact the residential school had in the lives of her people.
“I think that all of Labrador should know, all of Canada should know our history and I think in talking to my siblings recently, since the exhibition, how much it makes sense to our lives. It helps certainly to put our lives into a different perspective. It helps us to makes sense of what’s happening in our lives and how we are today,” Ms. Flowers stated.
“But the good thing is, you know with all this comes recognition of things and there’s hope for healing and people are healing and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Ms. Flowers said she thinks that and exhibitions that document the legacy of residential schools should become a part of the current school curriculum.
“ This should be in our history books, everybody should know and especially the kids should know because these people are some of their ancestors too and it happened in our lives, it’s a truth that needs to be known. We haven’t been recognized really by the federal government when the apology came, we weren’t included and our experience is the same as what happened in the rest of Canada. People need to know that.”