From the time he was three, Toby Obed desperately wanted to go home. But by the time he got there his parents were deceased and he had to relearn the Inuit culture and language.
“I will never, ever be able to take back my childhood. And I will never be able to say I lived a normal life. I will never be able to say I grew up in my hometown,” Obed said during a visit this past week to St. John’s where he was interviewed by lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada during the discovery process.
Obed is one of the representative plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit over alleged abuse at residential schools.
Five schools named
The class-action lawsuit involves Labrador Metis, Innu and Inuit students who attended five schools — Yale, Lockwood, Makkovik, Nain and St. Anthony. Two schools were run by Moravian Missionaries, while the remaining three were overseen by the International Grenfell Association.
The lawsuit aims to compensate former students who experienced cultural losses while attending the schools between 1949-79. There have also been allegations of physical and sexual abuse relating to the schools.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology in the House of Commons to former students of native residential schools for the sexual and physical abuse that occurred at the now-defunct network of federally financed, church-run residential institutions that also wiped out aboriginal languages and culture in the name of assimilation.
But the Government of Canada has taken the position it is not responsible for what took place at this province’s schools because of constitutional arrangements made with Newfoundland and Labrador since Confederation in 1949.
Ches Crosbie of Ches Crosbie Barristers said the lawyers for the plaintiffs will hold discoveries of the federal government’s witnesses in October and the trial is set for September 2013.
Obed, 40, said he was just three when he and three siblings — two older and one younger — were taken from their home in Hopedale and placed in the Yale residential school in Northwest River. He said he never saw his parents, Hannah and Marckus, again.
Obed was at the residential schools until he was around seven, then in a succession of foster homes around Labrador — mostly white families — until he got placed with relatives in Hopedale at age 16.
“To me it was a culture shock,” he said of finally returning home. At first he would get angry when people spoke to him in Inuktituk instead of English and he is still learning his native language.
It took him about a year to get used to life in Hopedale.
“I was glad to be back home where I aways wanted to be, where I always felt was where I belonged and that was where I needed to be,” said Obed, who now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“Even then, it took awhile — a good year — before I was able to say ‘OK I can do this now.’”
At the residential schools, students were strapped or whipped with a willow if they didn’t pick up English fast enough, Obed said.
He saw his siblings across the hallway or at recess.
“When we did get together, we made sure every second counted,” Obed recalled.
There were some staff who cared about the students, he said. Others were verbally and physically abusive. And the class action has alleged some staff and even older students were sexually abusive.
Obed didn’t want to discuss his alleged abusers, saying some of them are still alive.
Taunts and putdowns were part of everyday life, he said.
“‘You dirty Eskimo. You are a dummy. You are stupid. You will never be nothing’ and all these different insults,” he said.
Some of the kids came to believe the derogatory comments.
Obed said his older siblings told him different.
“So when I heard my brother and sister saying, ‘You’re not stupid. You’re not dumb. You’re not a dumb Eskimo,’ it made me feel better because I knew there was someone who actually cared about who I was as a person,” he recalled.
Obed said the younger kids also learned to travel in packs and avoid the “vultures” who preyed on them.
“So we had to be careful who was around us,” he said.
“That was our security blanket and our buddy system. If you had to go somewhere by yourself, you were constantly looking over your shoulder … Us younger ones, we were easy targets.”
Victims of abuse were threatened and warned against telling, Obed said.
Obed said later on, he told authorities about being sexually abused in foster homes, but was told nothing could be done.
Not all of the homes were abusive, he said, but he would not get attached to anyone and he would not listen to authority.
“I was bounced around to so many different foster homes, I felt like a rag doll — going to one home for two or three months, going to another one for three or four months, another a week or two,” he said.
“I couldn’t settle down wherever I was.”
Obed thinks his troubled life would have turned out differently had he been left with his parents. Eighteen years ago, while drinking, he suffered severe frostbite and has a prosthetic arm.
“I never had the guidance or someone to say you can’t do this, that’s wrong,” he said.
He still drinks, but has spent recent years trying to change his life, speaking for people who have already passed, can’t travel or don’t have the skills to speak out about the residential schools abuse.
“When (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper did the apology in Parliament in Ottawa, we were excluded from that apology,” Obed said.
“That was, to us, a great big smack in the face. … When I think about this whole process and where it’s going to lead, how long it’s going to take and the end result, I can say I did my part.”