Five years after it was announced, an inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in government care has officially been launched in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System is a long time coming for members of the province's Innu Nation, who have pushed to keep more Indigenous children in care in Labrador, with treatment that includes a focus on their culture and roots.
"This system has taken away children, brought them to different parts of Canada and different parts of the island," Sheshatshiu Chief Eugene Hart said during the launch Friday. "My people have been waiting for answers from Canada and Newfoundland for far too long."
Calls for an inquiry were led by then Innu Nation Deputy Grand Chief Simeon Tshakapesh, whose 16-year-old son Thunderheart died by suicide in May 2017 after returning to Natuashish following treatment for addictions issues away from the community.
The inquiry was formally announced two months later in July, with the hope that it could begin that September, but little progress was made by 2019, when then Premier Dwight Ball said both the province and the Innu Nation wanted to see more involvement from the federal government.
The inquiry's three commissioners were named last June: former Innu Nation chief Anastastia Qupee, former provincial court judge James Igloliorte and retired Memorial University social work professor Mike Devine.
In a press release, the trio said the inquiry will focus on reviewing and analyzing Innu involvement in the child protection system, along with understanding systemic and underlying causes of mistreatment and its cultural and community impacts. The Inquiry will also investigate several individual cases of children and youth who lost their lives and were or had been involved in the system.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey commended the launch of the inquiry Friday, thanking the commissioners for taking on an immense task for both the Innu Nation and the province as a whole.
"I know as they plan how the inquiry process will unfold, that they are committed to make sure that all aspects of the proceedings are reflective and responsible to the principles of reconciliation, and the true Innu values," Furey said.
"They will be tough, but necessary discussions and conversations as we embark on this phase of reconciliation.… We hope as part of those conversations there is true healing, and a true step in reconciliation as we move forward."
Innu Nation Deputy Grand Chief Mary Ann Nui said the world needs to know what has happened to Innu children in care.
"Families will revisit the heartbreak, but the telling of their stories are necessary to understand and address the changes that are required for the health of communities," she said.
"Children are our future of our communities, and we need healthy children and families to build our nation.… We have to understand what happened to our children, what is continuing to happen, and look at what changes can be made."
Inquiry a new beginning for next Innu generation: deputy chief
The provincial government has allocated $4 million for the inquiry. Igloliorte told reporters Friday the committee has 18 months to complete the inquiry, and hearings could begin in the fall.
"The way we planned this is to work backwards," he said. "We look at the 18 months down the road and say, 'In between now and then, how do we fill in the space so that we look at all of the aspects we have to consider?'"
Nui called Friday an important day in the history of the Innu, adding the inquiry has the chance to act as a new beginning for her people.
"The past trauma got to stop somewhere, and the past trauma got to stop passing on to the other generations," Nui told reporters Friday.
"The new generation today doesn't need to go through what we went through.… The new generation will all have a better understanding of what happened in the past with the child welfare, and they need to understand that. That way, we can prevent that for the new generations."