The Chiefs of three of the largest rural First Nations communities in New Brunswick are calling for the government to launch an investigation into the province's Indian day schools.
Arren Sock, the chief of Elsipogtog First Nation, Alvery Paul, chief of Esgenoopetitj and Ross Perley, chief of Neqotkuk First Nation, head the Mawiw Council, which represents their communities' joint interests.
They want the government of New Brunswick to take concrete actions to "show First Nations people that their past abuse will not be forgotten and won't be left uncorrected."
"It is imperative to recognize the injustices of the past. As a people, we need healing and forward thinking. Uncovering hidden history is a first step that cannot be taken lightly. The First Nations peoples of New Brunswick deserve the truth," said chief of the Esgenoopetitj First Nation Alvery Paul.
The Council said significant Indigenous involvement and oversight is required if an investigation were to take place.
An investigation would also include research into past settlers' family history, as many children were sent to live with settlers in the area.
The call comes one day before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sep. 30, the first time a federal statutory holiday has been dedicated in memory of the lost Indigenous children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.
The three First Nations join the The Wolastoqey Nation in calling for a government investigation and a ground-penetrating radar survey of Indian day school properties, particularly the former Sussex Indian School. along with the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia, as many Indigenous people from New Brunswick were sent there.
History of Indian day schools
In the 18th century, the government introduced "Indian Schools," established to isolate Indigenous children from their families, language and culture.
Early schools pushed a religious message on Indigenous children, who received little in the way of a promised education and were ultimately forced to work as unpaid labourers and domestic servants for the settlers they lived with.
The Sussex Indian Academy in Sussex Vale, which opened in the late-1780s, had the same goals of assimilation into colonial culture that existed in residential schools. The school closed in the late-1820s.
After Confederation in 1867, the federal government funded 12 day schools for Indigenous children that were run by churches. The last one to close was in Metepenagiag in 1992.
Following up on government promises
In June, Premier Blaine Higgs and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Arlene Dunn made a vague commitment to "get to the bottom" of what happened at government-run schools for Indigenous children in New Brunswick.
These comments were made after the news that the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the possible graves of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
"We will investigate each and every one of these located in New Brunswick," said Higgs during a message of condolences in the legislature.
On 'Resilience Day' in Fredericton in July, Dunn said the government was working to rectify the harm that institutions have caused Indigenous peoples.
At the time, she said government officials had met with Wolastoqey Nation chiefs to discuss an investigation into day schools in the province. It is unclear what progress has been made since then.
Frustration over N.B. decision
New Brunswick is one of multiple provinces that have chosen not to observe National Day of Truth and Reconciliation as a provincial holiday, choosing to keep schools and government institutions open.
The new holiday is one of 94 calls to action in the 2015 Calls to Action report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The Mawiw Council wrote to the province last week, calling for a reverse in the decision to not mark Sept. 30th as a holiday.
In response, Higgs said during the Sep. 29 COVID-19 update that the government is moving reconciliation forward in other ways, such as bringing First Nations history into school curriculum and establishing a systemic racism commissioner.
"I'm disappointed if it's seen as a slight in any way, because having more people take a day off is not necessarily going to encourage [them to] learn more about the challenges we're facing together in our country, and how we can manage them together."
With the call for the official commemoration of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation rejected, the Mawiw Council Indigenous leaders said they are concerned about the state of relations with the provincial government.
"We see the decision as a missed opportunity to repair damaged relations between Indigenous people in the province and the provincial government," said Ross Perley. "We believe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is important to the Truth and Reconciliation process and not recognizing it as a statutory holiday diminishes the importance of that process."
The Council said it hopes the government will investigate day schools as an actionable way to continue forward with reconciliation.
"We need to learn from our past mistakes as a society and do whatever is in our power to make sure that we do not forget," said Arren Sock.