Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors prepare for federal apology

1 / 5
Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors prepare for federal apology

Survivors of the residential school system in Newfoundland and Labrador are bracing themselves for an emotional event Friday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will apologize for the federal government's role in the residential school system.

Trudeau will deliver the apology at the Lawrence O'Brien Arts Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay at 10:30 a.m. AT. 

"No apology will ever take this pain that I have in my heart. I don't have forgiveness. What I have there is big chunk of my life taken away," said Joanna Michel of Sheshatshiu.

Michel said two men came to take her to the junior dormitories in North West River in the 1970s that were set up by the Grenfell Mission. The men told her they were taking her to a "better place."

"They lied to me," she said.

Thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities to attend residential schools between 1949 and 1979 that were run by the International Grenfell Association (IGA) or Moravians. Many claim they were sexually and physically abused, and suffered language and cultural losses.

About 1,000 students who attended residential schools accepted a $50-million settlement last year from the Trudeau government after initially launching a class-action lawsuit.

Michel attended an Innu school across the water in her home community, but was taken back to the dorms at night and kept apart from her parents.

She said there were instances of sexual abuse in the dormitories and that she was made to feel ashamed of her culture and who she was.

"You would hear these kind of comments, 'The little Indians, the little dirty Indians,'" Michel said of the school's faculty.

"It's the most unjust thing you can do to the Innu is take away their culture and what they believe in and what they are. Shaming us for who we were was wrong."

A survivor

Life after the dorms has not been easy for Michel.

"My relationship with my children today, it's been a struggle. I never talk about this to my mom or my dad cause I don't want them to [think] it's their fault I was here."

Today, she is proud of her culture, her language and who she is, she said.

"I call myself a survivor because I survived all that time and I never threw away my life. I face it head on."

Old friends

"It was pretty devastating," said Don Preston, who was in an orphanage in St. Anthony from 1960 to 1969 with his two younger brothers.

"There was no love given … no compassion whatsoever."

Preston was good friends with Nicky Obed at the orphanage. Obed was part of a class-action lawsuit launched by former residential school students in the province in 2015 against the federal government when they were left out of an apology. 

Obed passed away before the apology could take place. 

"If Nicky was there, I don't think I'd leave his side … Me and Nicky, we would've been sitting right beside each other," Preston said. 

Preston is looking forward to catching up with old friends and meet others at Friday's event with the prime minister, but he doesn't think much of the apology itself.

"It's a political reason, that's why [Trudeau] has got to do it. I don't think it's going to mean crap — it's just something he's got to do."

Repairing exclusion

"There's no way to do this without a lot of memories sort of coming back into the forefront... It already is very emotional and people handle that level of emotion in a lot of different ways," said Steven Cooper, the lawyer that represented the former students in the law suit.

The suit settled last year for $50 million.

"This apology really does go a ways ... towards fixing the horrific harm that was caused by the 2008 apology by Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper," Cooper said.

"That just cut to the core because it expressly excluded the survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador and the prime minister of the time didn't even bother to mention Labrador, referring only to the province of Newfoundland."