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No reconciliation for N.L. residential school survivors, yet

By: | June 19, 2015

As mediation talks continue in a class action lawsuit against the Government of Canada for its failure to recognize and take responsibility for N.L. residential school survivors, observers say the recently released Truth and Reconciliation report offers people in this province and across Canada an opportunity to pursue a meaningful course of action to repair the relationship between settlers and Indigenous Peoples.

At the June 9 "Rally for Reconciliation" in St. John's, Inuit Elder Sarah Aggek shared a story from her time at a residential school in Labrador that still lives with her today. Photo by Justin Brake.

Mediation talks between lawyers representing victims of residential schools in Labrador and Newfoundland and the Government of Canada will resume next month in St. John’s.

After an initial round of discussions last week, “it was decided that lawyers from all sides would meet again on July 21 and 22 so that the lawyers for the federal and provincial governments can obtain instructions from their clients about settlements,” said Cathy Crosbie, a spokesperson for St. John’s law firm Ches Crosbie Barristers, which is leading a class action lawsuit against the federal government for omitting residential school victims and their families in this province from an apology and compensation plan offered by Canada in 2008.

“It’s possible that they could reach a settlement agreement July 21 or 22, but if it doesn’t succeed and the claims do not settle at that time, trial will start on Sept. 28,” Crosbie said.

Labrador and Newfoundland victims and survivors left out

Last week’s mediation talks came one week after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report, following six years of information-gathering, including nearly 7,000 statements from witnesses and 1,355 hours of recorded testimony. The negotiations also coincided with a “Rally for Reconciliation” on Confederation Hill, where residential school survivors, their families, allies and government representatives joined in a call for Canada to recognize, apologize to, and compensate survivors from this province.

In Labrador and Newfoundland Inuit, Innu and Mi’kmaq children were taken from their families and put in residential schools run by the Moravian Church and the International Grenfell Association, where they were stripped of their language and culture and in many cases physically and sexually abused. Around 1,000 survivors are included in the current class action, though it is assumed thousands more were subjected to brutal treatment over the century or so the schools operated.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons in 2008 to issue an apology to the 150,000 victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system and launch the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he didn’t include those who attended this province’s six residential schools since, the federal government has argued, Newfoundland was not a part of Canada when the schools began operating.

Canada’s apology, its compensation to residential school survivors, and the launch of the TRC were conditions of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class action settlement in Canadian history.

The TRC report details 94 “calls to action” targeted at various levels of government and Aboriginal groups. The implementation of these recommendations has been widely heralded as a necessary step toward reconciliation with residential school survivors and their families and communities.

Residential schools legacy lives on

Most of the speakers at last week’s rally called on the Harper Government to act on the recommendations in the TRC report that fall under federal jurisdiction, in particular the 29th, which calls on “the parties and, in particular, the federal government, to work collaboratively with plaintiffs not included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to have disputed legal issues determined expeditiously on an agreed set of facts.”

Standing on the steps of Confederation Building, Patricia Ford, Nunatsiavut’s Ordinary Member for the Consituency of Canada, told the crowd that “there can never be true reconciliation while some survivors of residential schools in Canada are left out of any settlements, recognition and apologies from the federal government.”

In order to achieve reconciliation in this province, governments, churches and those responsible for the abuse perpetrated through residential schools “must acknowledge their history and the truth, as evil and deplorable as it may be,” NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell said in a statement read by NCC member Regan Burden. “They must repent for what they have done and atone for the wrongs that they have committed.”

Sarah Aggek, an Inuit Elder, took her turn standing before the crowd and shared one painful memory that still lives with her today.

“I need to tell what happened when I was going to residential school,” she said. “When we were having supper — soup — I got kind of sick and threw up in my bowl and they made me eat it. That’s why today I don’t like carrots and turnip,” she recalled.

The survivors represented in the current class action lawsuit attended either the Lockwood residential school in Cartwright, the Yale school in North West River, or others in Nain, Makkovik and St. Anthony.

Photo by Justin Brake.

Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains Randy Edmunds said children who returned to Hopedale from residential schools were “unapproachable”. Photo by Justin Brake.

At the rally Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains Randy Edmunds said there was at least one other residential school, in Muddy Bay, Labrador, that is not included in the lawsuit. He said it burned down years ago.

Edmunds grew up in the Inuit communities of Hopedale and Makkovik in the 1970s, and because his two older sisters, his parents and grandmother all attended residential schools, he’s no stranger to the impacts the schools had, he said.

“I remember growing up in Hopedale…and remember the kids going out on the harbour in January with tears in their eyes getting back on board the plane. And when they came back, to us younger kids they were different, they were unapproachable,” he recounted. “And we resented them. It was only years after that we realized the pain and the suffering that they went through every time that plane showed up.”

St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (SJNFC) Executive Director Natasha McDonald told the crowd at the rally the residential schools aren’t just a thing of the past — they live on today as one of the many persistent effects of colonialism.

“I was taught by an Aboriginal elder that what affects one within the circle affects all within the circle,” she said. “The effects of the experiences of survivors is still being felt by them, their children, their grandchildren, their nieces, their nephews and their communities. The effects of residential boarding schools are also felt by all people of Aboriginal descent across the province, including the Innu, the Inuit, the Mi’kmaq and the [people of] NunatuKavut.”

Amelia Reimer, a cultural support worker with the SJNFC, said the six noted residential schools were not the only way violence was perpetrated against Aboriginal children and their families in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In addition to residential schools, where children were typically shipped off for weeks, months, and even a year at a time, she has also heard from many in the province about “day schools”, where children were still getting “the same indoctrination, the same sort of ‘education’ of learning English, forgetting your own language, your own culture — being removed from everything,” she said, “except you were still able to go home each night.

“A lot of the Mi’kmaq communities have talked to me about going to ‘regular’ school, but still at regular school being shamed out of their identity, being shamed out of their background. But there were Mi’kmaq people sent to residential schools as well, and some of them were called ‘orphanages’, that they were sent to. I’ve heard from [Innu] people at Sheshatshiu who were sent to Mount Cashel and Belvedere. And I’ve talked to people from Corner Brook, Flat Bay, Bay St. George’s area who were sent to other orphanages even though they were not orphans — another way to be removed from their families and cultures.”

 The most modern version of the residential schools of course is the foster care system, once again [seeing children] being removed from families and communities and being raised by people not of your family, not of your community, and being taught everywhere you came from was bad. — Amelia Reimer, cultural support worker

Margaret Cranford, a Mi’kmaq woman from the Island’s west coast who now lives in St. John’s, said she remembers stories her grandmother told of the times government workers would come to her door collecting information. 

“When census came to her door she was pregnant and she had one son standing by her, and they asked her how many children she had and she said ‘one’ for fear that they would be shipped away,” Cranford recalled. “She actually had 11 children, and she died giving birth to the twelfth. She was 42.”

Reimer said the abuse inflicted upon the Aboriginal Peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador has created a legacy of intergenerational trauma that exists today and is a big part of the reason Innu, Inuit and Mi’kmaq communities struggle with grave social problems.

“People are still being hurt today,” she said. “Some of it is intergenerational violence; the trauma happened and it gets passed down, and the reactions and the coping skills to this trauma gets passed down, whether it be looking for solace in alcohol or substances, whether it be learning to abuse people — domestic violence, child abuse.”

Reimer also said the current problem of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes and put into foster care has its roots in the consequences of residential schools and other forms of colonial violence perpetrated against the Innu, Inuit and Mi’kmaq.

“The most modern version of the residential schools of course is the foster care system, once again [seeing children] being removed from families and communities and being raised by people not of your family, not of your community, and being taught everywhere you came from was bad,” she said.

While various speakers at the Rally for Reconciliation called on the federal government to lead the way in adopting the 94 calls to action, the focus was largely on reaching an agreement with the lawyers representing the residential school victims and survivors of this province.

In his statement, Todd Russell said the survivors here “have not had an opportunity to tell their stories and to begin that [healing] journey.

“This revictimization must stop. The legal squabbling must stop. And a settlement must be reached so the healing and the reconciliation can truly begin. There is a better way and it is for governments and all people in Canada to walk with us on a journey of healing and reconciliation.

Dinah Andersen, an Inuk from Nain who introduced herself as a “survivor of a survivor,” said she attended the rally to “speak on behalf of the many children who are unable to be here.

“Many have passed on, many are still struggling with the reality of their horrific experiences. I am one of the lucky ones — I did not endure as much hardship as many of my people.

“We must remember and honour the children as Canada honours the fallen soldiers,” she continued. “The iconic words ‘Lest we Forget’ can be a model to remember the survivors of residential schools of this province of ours.”

TRC Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, has said in recent media interviews that there are 6,000 documented deaths of children while in the care of residential schools across Canada, and that the number is likely higher since thousands of documents have been destroyed.

The odds of a child dying in a residential school were 1 in 25, it has been widely reported since the TRC report’s release, while the odds of a Canadian soldier dying in World War II were 1 in 26. 

Politicians respond to report

In 2012 Canada endorsed the United Nations’ Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has been widely criticized for its refusal to implement the provisions of the declaration.

Following a nine-day visit to Canada in 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya called the reality faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada a “crisis”, saying the steps taken by governments are “insufficient, and have yet to fully respond to aboriginal peoples’ urgent needs, fully protect their aboriginal and treaty rights, or to secure relationships based on mutual trust and common purpose.”

While politicians at last week’s rally in St. John’s, including those from Labrador, joined in calling on the federal government to settle with the residential school survivors from this province and to adopt the 94 calls to action outlined in the TRC report, they were vague on what their parties would do within the provincial government to address the 28 calls to action that are in part or entirely under provincial jurisdiction.

“I’m happy to say the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has moved forward on reconciliation since 2004. Much has been done but much more remains to be done,” said Keith Russell, provincial Minister of Aboriginal and Labrador Affairs. “We are committed to enhancing our relationship with all Aboriginal people in our province.”

Asked if the government would adopt and implement the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation—which is call to action number 43 in the TRC report—the minister said the report is “hundreds of pages long with 94 recommendations,” and that the government is “in the process of evaluating each and every one, and then of course we’ll make our decisions accordingly.”

Photo by Justin Brake.

A crowd looks on as politicians call on the Canadian government to adopt the calls to action in the TRC report and to recognize the residential school victims and survivors from Labrador and Newfoundland. Photo by Justin Brake.

Russell said the public can expect an update from the provincial government “in the near future.”

Meanwhile, Edmunds, Liberal critic for Aboriginal and Labrador Affairs, reiterated his party’s support for the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit and in a follow-up interview with The Independent said if a settlement is reached in the class action, “hopefully there won’t be any need for further action.”

Edmunds said the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is “something that we all support,” but did not say whether the Liberal Party would adopt and implement it in this province if the it forms the next government.

NDP Aboriginal and Labrador Affairs critic Lorraine Michael told the crowd at the rally that following the calls to action outlined in the TRC report will be a necessary step to addressing the cycle of intergenerational trauma and repair the province’s relationship with Aboriginal Peoples here.

“We have to put in place all of the protections that are needed for the current children to stop the cycle,” she said. “We will never stop it if we don’t take seriously the report and the calls to action that are in that report.

“We need two things,” she continued. “We need a commitment on all levels to work together on the 94 calls to action, and we definitely need a settlement for the Aboriginal people in this province, and a settlement that comes not by dragging their stories through the courts, not by dragging their experiences through the court — but by the way that they know best, and that is by mediation, sitting down, working it out.”

At the federal level, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remained silent on the TRC report.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said in a statement on June 2, the same day the 386-page report was released, “I affirm our unwavering support for the TRC’s recommendations, and call on the Government of Canada to take immediate action to implement them,” adding that “as leaders and legislators, we have a responsibility to act.

“The truth of what occurred has been established. Now we must all commit to the important work of reconciliation going forward.”

On the same day, NDP leader Tom Mulcair issued a statement saying the federal government “must act immediately in the areas of education, child protection and health care in order to put an end to the inequalities and sorry legacy of residential schools,” but did not commit to the full implementation of the TRC report’s 94 calls to action should the NDP form government in this fall’s election.

“We are determined to act upon the report of the Commission,” he continued. “We will consult with Indigenous people and establish which of the recommendations require the most pressing attention.”

In an interview with The Independent, St. John’s South—Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary said the NDP was being more pragmatic in not committing to the full implementation of all 94 recommendations, and that the Trudeau Liberals couldn’t realistically adopt and implement the calls to action since about one-third of them require the cooperation and action of provincial and municipal governments.

Cleary said the NDP is working to determine which of the calls to action are priorities.

“In terms of immediate action, areas like education, child welfare, health services — we need to take immediate action on these critical areas first so that the legacy of the residential schools ends now,” he said. “We’ve got to start healing this relationship, as Tom [Mulcair] has said, on a nation to nation basis.”

On June 2, the same day the TRC report was released, Cleary tabled a private members’ bill in the House of Commons that would make June 1 each year a national day to recognize the victims of clergy abuse, an act that if passed will contribute to Canada’s reconciliation efforts with Aboriginal Peoples, he said.

“It’s the start of something. Right at the start of that bill it mentions residential schools and Aboriginal Peoples, [and] we had the support of a whole whack of people on that one.”

Both the federal NDP and Liberals have vowed to make the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women an election issue this year. The prime minister has repeatedly denied the call by Indigenous groups, premiers and opposition parties, telling CBC’s Peter Mansbridge last December that the matter “isn’t really high on our radar to be honest.”

The TRC report’s 41st call to action prescribes a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, of which part of the inquiry’s mandate would include identifying “links to the intergenerational legacy of residential schools.”

The ugly truth that must accompany reconciliation

In spite of Canadian politicians’ commitments to respect the TRC report, many Indigenous leaders, allies and critics are skeptical that adequate meaningful action will be taken to follow through on the promises, a necessary step, some have said, in facilitating a process of decolonization in Canada. (The term decolonization doesn’t mean that all settlers must leave the country; click here to read more about the concept.)

Many have also criticized the TRC report for not going far enough in naming the actions and consequences of residential schools “cultural genocide”.

Photo by Justin Brake.

Photo by Justin Brake.

“These children didn’t die from smallpox or some other series of unfortunate and unpreventable events in those schools. Nutritional tests and medical experimentations were done on these children only to be denied to benefit of the very medicines created at the expense of their suffering,” Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, activist and Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, wrote in a June 17 article for teleSUR.

“Survivor stories of frequent rapes, forced abortions, and unmarked graves stand in stark contradiction to any notion of a benign education policy. Why else did these schools have graveyards instead of playgrounds?

“It is too easy for politicians to claim ‘cultural genocide’ now, when they are well aware that cultural genocide was specifically left out of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” she continued.

“Leaders ought to be held accountable if they knew or should have known about the actions and failed to prevent them. Direct evidence of intent is not necessary but can be inferred from circumstantial evidence.”

The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was drafted following the horrors of the World War II Holocaust to prevent even remotely similar atrocities from ever occurring again.

By definition, under international law, ‘genocide’ occurs when “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

“In residential schools, children were forcibly removed, starved, denied medical care, and many suffered slow deaths,” Palmater continued in her article. “Genocide is the material destruction of a group or part of a group. There is no set number of people that must be killed for the crime of genocide to occur. It does not need to mimic the worst holocaust to be genocide.”

The genocide debate prompted National Post columnist Stephen Maher to write an article on June 11 called “Not genocide? Ask the Beothuks” in response to Conrad Black’s June 6 article in the same publication, in which Black argued that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples was “shameful, but not genocide.”

“After Conrad Black wrote in these pages last week that ‘even the First Nations should be grateful that the Europeans came here,’ aboriginal people across Canada angrily denounced him for rejecting the idea that they were the victims of attempted cultural genocide. However, there was a notable exception. No Beothuks complained,” Maher wrote, using the Indigenous group that occupied what is now called Newfoundland at the time of European colonization of the Island and the subsequent mass killing of Natives here to illustrate the point that many Canadians are disillusioned or in denial about the colonial violence—which included genocide—that our provinces and country are founded upon.

 [The TRC Report] gives us the language for asking the hard but unavoidable question: How are we to live as settlers in what we call Canada? — Mayana C. Slobodia, writer

Even those critical of the TRC report’s failure to identify Canada’s residential school policies as an act of ‘genocide’, however, are noting the report’s achievement in providing Canada’s settler and Indigenous populations with the information necessary to begin on the path to reconciliation.

“This country needs to be shaken out of its indifference. It needs to acknowledge a dark history that Canada authored. Canadians must consider how to remedy the harm that we – Canadians – caused,” reads a June 2 editorial in the Globe and Mail.

“’Non-aboriginal Canadians hear about the problems faced by aboriginal communities but they have almost no idea how those problems developed,’ Mr. Sinclair says in his report. That’s not an excuse any more.”

Others have said the report reads like the long chapter that has been missing from Canadian history books, and that reading and understanding it affords settler Canadians an opportunity to meaningfully steer our shared future toward one based on acknowledged truths, reconciliation and shared prosperity, rather than denial and the continued oppression of the land’s first peoples.

“The Report of the TRC … transforms a commission addressing Aboriginal people and policy into a commission also about the rest of us,” Mayana C. Slobodia wrote for VICE on June 9. “It gives us the language for asking the hard but unavoidable question: How are we to live as settlers in what we call Canada?”

A frail-looking John Crosbie, former MP, federal cabinet minister and Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, stood on the steps of Confederation Building at the Rally for Reconciliation and apologized to onlookers, saying, “I should have done more when I was in a position to do more,” and that there “just isn’t any counterargument” against recognizing the history of residential school victims and survivors in Labrador and Newfoundland and making a formal apology for the generations of atrocities and suffering.

Crosbie told The Independent federal politicians today “have no reason to turn away” from the TRC report and the call to settle outstanding litigation for residential school survivors, and that “the time to act is now.”

Whatever the future holds for Canada’s settler and Indigenous Peoples, those who attended the rally all seem to agree that governments must do whatever they can to ensure the province’s residential school victims and survivors are recognized, apologized to and compensated for their pain and suffering.

“We encourage the parties to come to a timely end to the mediation, helping the Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors to begin to find closure, begin their healing process, and get the recognition they deserve,” Ford said, reading a statement from Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo.

“Reconciliation is just the beginning.”

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