Warning: This story contains distressing details.
As the first-ever National Truth and Reconciliation Day gets underway in Newfoundland and Labrador, Indigenous people from across the province are urging everyone to observe, reflect and take action well beyond the day.
As a federal statutory holiday, schools and government offices are closed Thursday across the province. People are asked to spend time to consider the impacts of the Canadian residential school system which separated Indigenous children for generations from their families and cultures and forced them into institutions where many experienced trauma and abuse.
"This day will mark a beginning of something that's going to be a lot better than the past. The more we talk about it, we'll make sure it's never forgotten," said Mi'sel Joe, sagamaw of the Miawpukek First Nation on Newfoundland's south coast.
Five residential schools operated in Labrador and St. Anthony, with the last closing in 1980. As they originated pre-Confederation, the schools were outside of the national system of federally-funded institutions, and were either run by the Moravian mission or the International Grenfell Association.
Survivors of those schools fought for recognition and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized in 2017, nearly a decade after an apology was issued to Indian residential school survivors.
"Former students in Labrador really wanted to make it clear that what they experienced, the neglect, the abuse, perhaps the trauma, social disruption that these schools caused was equivalent," said Andrea Procter, the author of A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland.
Moving today into tomorrow
As Mi'kmaw Elder Calvin White drove from St. John's to his home in Flat Bay on Wednesday, he grappled with the legacy of residential schools along the hundreds of kilometres of highway.
"I can't get this thought out of my head — is that today we have to look at one of the darkest times of our history. We're talking about genocide, directed by government officials, carried out by religious-run residential schools and condoned by the legal authorities," White told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.
"It's so sad. It's a shame we even have to talk about this."
But White vowed to talk about it all day Thursday. He said he'll spend it on the phone in deep conversation with elders, and keep the conversations going about how Indigenous communities and Canada can move forward, in ways that don't end in court battles but rather in nation-to-nation discussions.
"We need to keep this issue alive. It has to be something that has to be dealt with," White said, adding this is a message that needs to reach settler Canadians as well as Indigenous communities.
Joe, meanwhile, is marking the first Truth and Reconciliation Day in St. John's in much the same way, speaking with elders and anyone else who wants to have a conversation.
"What continues today, goes on into tomorrow," he said.
'Colonialism is ongoing'
Systemic, government inaction on all levels was on the minds of both elders and Indigenous youth Thursday.
"Canada can definitely do better this day," said Holly Tait, a Cree-Ojibwe living in St. John's.
Growing up in Manitoba, Tait said learning about residential schools was part of the school curriculum, and she believes Newfoundland and Labrador could do better to educate its youngest.
"I'm a bit shocked that my friends only learned about such happenings in the first year of Memorial University, and I'm like, 'whoa, I learned this when I was a young child,'" she said.
Robert Leamon, a Qalipu member, agreed that perhaps the best way to spend the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is for people to learn the schools' history, and carry that forward.
"These actions need to be ongoing, because colonialism is ongoing," he said.
"And that's why we need everyone to come together in a collective sense, to demand that government actually meaningfully follow up on its commitments to Indigenous peoples."
The Miawpukek First Nation's plans to mark the day were scuttled by COVID-19, with testing taking place in the community amid the central Newfoundland outbreak, Joe said.
Elsewhere in the province there are a myriad of other observances, with all flags on provincial government buildings being flown at half-mast. Happy Valley-Goose Bay marked the day with a 9 a.m. gathering in front of its town hall.
In St. John's, The Rooms offered free admission, with multiple displays and activities to encourage reflection and action, including displaying the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation held multiple walks and vigils in west coast communities with the minister for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation, Lisa Dempster, attending the one in Corner Brook..
The provincial government has yet to issue an apology for residential schools, despite plans in the works to do so.
St. John's Indigenous organization First Light called Wednesday for additional movement by Premier Andrew Furey, asking his government to implement all of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action that fall under the province's jurisdiction.
"The federal government has a constitutional responsibility to provide services to Indigenous people, including in urban centres," said Justin Campbell, advocacy manager. "But the provinces are the ones that control many of those levers, whether it's the education system, health care, policing, justice — any of those things."
The organization requested a formal, co-ordinated approach to tackling the calls to action that they say haven't yet been adequately addressed, such as promoting Indigenous languages and history in schools.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.