HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, NL — Muffled sobs could be heard in the Lawrence O’Brian Centre on Nov. 24 as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology to the survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.
More than 300 people were in the room to listen as Trudeau, his own voice betraying some emotion, delivered the apology, saying, “For every Innu, Inuit, and NunatuKavut child in Newfoundland and Labrador who suffered discrimination, mistreatment, abuse, and neglect in residential schools – we are sorry.”
“I always wondered if we would ever get the apology,” said Toby Obed, a residential school survivor who accepted the apology on behalf of all the survivors. “Would we ever get the PM to come to Labrador? Would we ever hear the words ‘I’m sorry?’ Now I don’t have to wonder anymore, I don’t have to think about it anymore.”
Obed had said earlier that day he wasn’t sure if he was going to accept the apology; it depended on what was said and if he felt it came from the heart.
“Even this morning when I had my one-on-one with him I could hear his sincerity, I could hear he has compassion and to have people like that to actually say they were sorry, to let us know we are acknowledged. Everything came full circle. The healing will start. This is a start.”
The residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador were left out of the apology given by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 because the schools were not run by the Canadian federal government and were set up before Newfoundland joined Confederation. The International Grenfell Association and the Moravians ran the schools.
“While this long overdue apology will not undo the harm done,” the Prime Minister stated today, “we offer it as a sign that we as a government and as a country accept responsibility for our failings. It is our shared hope that we can learn from this past and continue to advance our journey of reconciliation and healing. We have the power to be better and to do better."
As part of the ceremony a trio of Inuit drummers performed. One of those drummers, Tabitha Blake of Rigolet, is the child of a survivor.
Blake said it was a very emotional and uplifting experience for her and she was proud to represent her people at the historic event.
“I’m proud to be here on his behalf,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “To represent him and my people.”
Not all happy with apology
The Innu Nation did not take part in the apology, citing ongoing issues with the federal government as the rationale but individual band members did take part.
Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich said in a release their Elders are not ready to accept an apology that is made for such a small part of their experience.
“The response from members of our community has been quite emotional, it is clear that Innu need apologies for more than the experience in the International Grenfell Association run residential school dormitories,” Rich said. 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.”
Not all survivors were recognized in the apology, either, which has made some upset. Anyone who attended a residential school prior to 1949 was not a part of the apology. Jack Penashue’s father was one of those people.
“He was one of those people not recognized in the system,” he said. “When Harper gave the first apology he told us to shut off the TV, he didn’t accept the apology. With this apology I wonder how he would have felt, would he have been more accepting? Would he have been willing to listen to the history of what Canada did to Innu people? I’ll never find out but I was thinking about him the whole time.”
Some in attendance at the apology weren’t entirely satisfied with it either. Marjorie Flowers’ father is a survivor and she attended the apology on his behalf.
“I didn’t come here because I felt it was meaningful. It’s meaningful for the survivors like my father but I don’t feel its meaningful in general terms because of the way the federal government is treating indigenous people in Labrador with the Muskrat Falls project.”
She said the belief that’s their change for indigenous people isn’t happening, citing the potential methylmercury poisoning of the food chain from the Muskrat Falls project.
“An important part of my culture is being destroyed, she said. “This man who was up here today is providing billion in loan guarantees to this project. In that sense I feel let down, I feel very betrayed. I see it as a necessary thing that had to happen but it doesn’t acknowledge what’s happening right now.”