When former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the legacy of Canada’s residential school system in 2008, survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador were left out in the cold.
“I was very upset, I was very angry about it,” said Sharon Edmunds a third generation survivor, who attended the school at North West River from 1975 to 1979.
On November 24, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek to rectify the exclusion of Newfoundland and Labrador with an event at Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Edmunds was thrilled with the announcement of the upcoming apology recounting her attendance at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba, apologized for the university’s role in the residential school legacy.
“I sat there and I just melted and I cried, and I thought ‘oh my God, this must be what an apology could possibly feel like’,” Edmunds said. “I can only imagine how it will feel for the Labrador Inuit, for all of these years, and the abuse and the horrific experiences that legacy has left and scarred so many people, to be able to sit there as the prime minister steps up on behalf of the country and says, this was wrong and we apologize.”
Details of Trudeau’s visit are yet to be released, but Steven Cooper, an Alberta-based lawyer who represented Newfoundland and Labrador survivors in a class action lawsuit settled last year, said he expects approximately 300 survivors to be in attendance.
Although the court decision left it up to the federal government whether an apology would be offered, it was always part and parcel of the class action, Cooper said via telephone from Australia where he was presenting at an indigenous peoples conference.
“We made it clear, in various forms, that the apology to be valid, would have to come from the very office that gave the apology in 2008,” he said.
A spokesperson for the prime minister stated by email the event is a priority for Trudeau.
“The Prime Minister has made it clear that there is no relationship more important to him—and to our government—than our relationship with Indigenous people,” wrote Eleanore Catenaro, press secretary for the Office of the Prime Minister.
Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs will also be in attendance November 24. Her office provided a more in depth statement on the rationale for the apology.
“Apologizing to the victims of this dark chapter in Canada’s history is the right thing to do,” the email stated.
“Former students and their families have indicated that an official apology on behalf of the Government of Canada is important to their healing and ability to move forward. The Government is listening. Canada recognizes the value of an official apology in achieving reconciliation with former students of Newfoundland and Labrador Boarding Schools.”
The litigation leading to the upcoming apology began in 2007 and involved some 900 plaintiffs, who attended schools at Cartwright, North West River, Nain, Makkovik and St. Anthony after 1949 when Newfoundland joined confederation. A settlement of $50 million was reached in May 2016 and approved by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in September 2016.
It included general compensation payments of $15,000 for students who resided at the schools for less than five years and $20,000 for longer term residents. Cooper said those payments have already been issued.
Former students who were physically and/or sexually abused will receive abuse compensation payments of between $50,000 and $200,000 depending on the severity, duration and frequency of the abuse they suffered. Cooper expects those payments to be released within the next couple of weeks. He said that turnaround is extremely fast for cases of this nature, which he has been working on since being called to the bar in 1998.
Edmunds noted that while the money was nice and helpful to the litigants, it pales in comparison to the importance of the apology.
“The money was never what it was all about,” she said. “To me, the apology is more than the money could ever compare to, because it’s never going to be enough to replace that experience, but the apology has way more weight than you can ever imagine.”
Cooper explained that has been his experience with the vast majority of survivors he has represented over the past two decades.
“The apology is more than the words, the event itself is important in the face of a denial of liability or blame in 2008 when Newfoundland and Labrador were excluded and Labrador wasn’t even mentioned in the apology, but was excluded by implication. Now, we jump ahead almost 10 years and that apology represents a gap that was created by the prime minister at the time. It means an incredible amount.”
The original exclusion was a matter of clarity according to Cathy McLeod, the current Opposition Indigenous Affairs critic.
“We certainly support the decision to make this apology,” McLeod said by telephone from Ottawa. “It continues to build on the original apology by Stephen Harper and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission], so we see it as another step.
“Way back in 2008, there wasn’t clarity because it was pre-confederation for Newfoundland to join. The new government has clarity in terms of the responsibility, so we welcome them moving forward.”