Toward reconciliation in Newfoundland and Labrador

Amelia Reimer, one of the province’s most vocal advocates for Indigenous rights, fields questions about missing and murdered Indigenous women, residential schools, and the path toward reconciliation in N.L.

The Trudeau government and their Liberal counterparts under Dwight Ball in Newfoundland and Labrador have promised Indigenous people they will work toward reconciliation by, among other things, implementing the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report released last year.

In January family members of some of the missing or murdered Indigenous women from this province attended regional consultations in Halifax and other locations throughout the country with representatives from the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The federal government is seeking input as it lays the groundwork for the long-awaited national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIW).

Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing between the Government of Canada, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and lawyers representing more than 1,000 victims of residential schools that operated in Labrador and on the Island’s Northern Peninsula.

The word ‘reconciliation’ has made its way into mainstream media’s vernacular and into public discourse around Indigenous rights, but the colonial roots of the violence systemically perpetrated against Indigenous people in Canada often remain obscured.

Important concepts like ‘decolonization‘ are central to meaningful discussion and action toward reconciliation, as is a comprehensive understanding of and respect for the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which, though not legally binding, is an almost universally accepted set of international legal norms pertaining to the treatment of the world’s estimated 220 to 350 million Indigenous Peoples.

UNDRIP is also embedded in the TRC’s calls to action, which means both the Trudeau and Ball governments have committed to respecting and observing the 46 articles within the declaration.

Last year, after the TRC released its report, Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English wrote that “it is hard to deny that one word best applies overall to media coverage of Aboriginal issues throughout our history: Failure.” Media coverage of Indigenous Peoples often neglects to achieve the depth necessary to help facilitate the societal shift toward a sufficient understanding of the problems facing First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada, critics say.

The Independent recently put some questions to St. John’s Native Friendship Centre cultural support worker Amelia Reimer, a self-declared “proud Métis woman”, a spirited and unrelenting warrior for Indigenous rights, and, incidentally, a board member for the non-profit that sustains The Independent.

Interview with Amelia Reimer

JUSTIN BRAKE: Can you describe what happened in Halifax in January — what the purpose of the meetings were, what happened there, and what your role was?

AMELIA REIMER: It was a gathering of family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and their support people. The purpose was for government to consult families as to how the inquiry should be designed. This is only the pre-inquiry phase. Specifics on what happened at the meeting is not publicly available, but summaries [have been] published online through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). People in attendance were assured privacy and confidentiality. My role was as a health support worker to the approximately 100 people in the room; this includes offering tissues and water, someone to talk to outside the room, offering smudge medicines, connecting them to an Elder, etc. For some, this was their first time truly telling their story.

JB: What are your thoughts on the fact — and how much it matters — that the meetings skipped our province, as well as P.E.I. and New Brunswick?

AR: The meetings were held regionally and, unfortunately, that means all of the Atlantic region was to meet in one centralized location – Halifax. INAC covered the travel costs for the family members and their support people to and from the meetings, but getting that much time away from work and school, especially with such short notice, is difficult to orchestrate.

Family members who were not able to attend the Halifax meeting were encouraged to attend the Toronto or Ottawa meeting. I have been informed that some of the N.L. families did take those opportunities. This is only the beginning of a very long process and there will be additional opportunities for families to be involved at various stages. To get involved, family members are encouraged to contact Aman with INAC at (613) 897-2254 (phone or text). 

JB: The CBC quoted you as saying Newfoundland and Labrador are unique in that “so many people have had their Aboriginal or Indigenous backgrounds denied, shamed, silenced.” Can you elaborate on this, to give people an idea of how this happened and how we have arrived at where we are today?

St. Johns Native Friendship Centre cultural support worker Amelia Reimer speaks at a recent event on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Photo by Darcy Taylor.
Amelia Reimer spoke at Memorial University on Feb. 18 about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Photo by Darcy Taylor.

AR: Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we were not part of Canada until 1949, and so were not part of the Indian Act or other legislation targeted at Indigenous Peoples. Upon Confederation in 1949, Joey Smallwood was asked if there were any First Nations groups applicable under the Indian Act, and Ottawa was told “no”.  Also, all across Canada, Inuit people are not included in the Indian Act. As far as First Nations, the existence of the Innu (now Sheshatshiu and Mushuau/Natuashish) and the Mi’kmaq (now Miawpukek and Qalipu) of Newfoundland and Labrador were denied by the provincial government. 

Over the generations, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have been known to have Indigenous ancestry have often been looked down upon, passed over for jobs, mocked, and otherwise tormented. Many have found that if their skin is light enough, it’s much easier to “pass for White” and not talk about their Indigenous background. Only recently have many people started to feel safe enough to come forward and publicly claim that ancestry (if indeed they ever had that choice in the first place). We see Indigenous groups all across Canada speaking out about rights and wrongs. Locally, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq and the NunatuKavut Inuit (formerly known as Labrador Métis) have been fighting very hard for their recognition and standing in the eyes of the federal government.

JB: What is the significance of the story and history of the Beothuk to our province and society?

AR: It is impactful upon the collective psyche of the province, the idea that a group of people are considered “extinct”. Many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still subscribe to this train of thought. For non-Indigenous people it is sometimes considered a victory of conquest, but others consider it a source of great guilt. Among Indigenous communities, it has often been viewed as the ultimate defeat. More Indigenous groups and other communities, however, have started to speak out about various remnants of the Beothuk people that live on today through DNA. This is significant in the idea that perhaps not all is lost – that there is room and hope to show a partial survival.

Also, many people of the province don’t understand the difference between Beothuk and Mi’kmaq, or the difference between Innu and Inuit. These are areas where updated and broader education is needed across the province about our local Indigenous groups.

I personally find it disheartening that often the only Indigenous representation present in our province’s history is that of the Beothuk. The existence of the Inuit, Innu and Mi’kmaq of this province have been grossly overlooked in the history books.

JB: How does addressing the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women fit into the broader commitment by the federal and provincial governments to achieve reconciliation?

AR: There is currently discussion throughout Canada that the inquiry into Indian Residential Schools and the inquiry into MMIW will be very much intertwined. Both have deep roots in colonialism, and often it is the same families affected by both. It is important, however, to steer away from calling MMIW a “problem” (although indeed it is), as government has historically viewed Indigenous Peoples, languages and cultures as a “problem” preferably erased.

JB: What might reconciliation, or justice for Indigenous people, look like in Newfoundland and Labrador? 

AR: There is much need for education on Indigenous history and current affairs — both positive and negative — throughout Canada, but especially the Newfoundland and Labrador experiences. This education is needed at all levels – elementary school right on up through continuing education for adults. Most people just don’t know much about Indigenous populations in Newfoundland and Labrador or the rest of Canada. With more accurate information, hopefully this will help dispel the misinformation and negative stereotypes.

Reconciliation might also entail:

  • The development of partnerships between Indigenous governments or organizations and the comparable counterpart within communities.
  • Partnerships and dedication of various media organizations to more accurately report and portray Indigenous Peoples and communities.
  • Justice will include having the Newfoundland and Labrador Indian Residential School experience properly acknowledged and a desirable conclusion to the ongoing court case.
  • The Qalipu and NunatuKavut would also be official, federally-recognized governments, and not have that recognition threatened.

Reconciliation will be an ongoing process. We didn’t get to this point overnight. There are many more things that would assist justice and reconciliation, but these are the first that come to mind.

JB: Is there a connection between residential and day schools and the level of violence against Indigenous women that exists today?

AR: Yes. It taught Indigenous women to be treated badly and to think very little of themselves. Indigenous men were taught the same negative thought patterns about themselves, but also taught—both by word and by example—to not hold Indigenous women in high esteem. 

JB: What other past or present government policies might be contributing to the degree of violence perpetrated against Indigenous women?

AR: The list goes on and on. Looking at Canada as a whole, forced sterilization of Indigenous women within residential schools and other settings had been formally occurring from the 1920s until more recent times.

The Pass System was used on reserves in Canada — that Indigenous people were not allowed to leave the reserve without written consent of the local Indian Agent. 

Enfranchisement has been a practice used by the government to strip Indigenous peoples of their Indigenous status (in the eyes of the government) for things such as becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, serving in the military, or an Indigenous woman marrying a non-Indigenous man.

JB: What about the removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities due to substance abuse in the household or child abuse or neglect?

 It is harmful enough for a child to be removed from their home, but to be removed from their community and culture is further damaging.

AR: It is harmful enough for a child to be removed from their home, but to be removed from their community and culture is further damaging. More licensed foster homes are needed in the communities and/or in close proximity to the communities of origin. Out-of-home placements of Indigenous children need to be with families educated in the culture. Out-of-home placements for Indigenous children need to keep them in contact with culture, healthy family and community members, and healthy community events. Utilize more relative and fictive kinship care. Ensure more culturally-appropriate case planning for children and a social worker from the child’s community to inform and help develop the case plan.

JB: In your role as a cultural support worker and an advocate for Indigenous rights, what can our provincial government do to help alleviate or resolve the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women?

AR: Within the province here, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador supported an All-Party Resolution of National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Children. This was a powerful statement on behalf of the province, but more action is needed to follow that up. We are into the inquiry now, but many of the contributing factors are already well-known: disrespect for Indigenous people (especially Indigenous women), financial stresses, lack of appropriate housing, influences of drugs and alcohol addictions, and more.

As each new instance of a missing or murdered Indigenous woman impacts their family, it also impacts the community and the larger population as a whole. It is important that there be services available to women and children at risk (prevention), as well as additional services to the family members left behind (post-vention). Indigenous organizations throughout the province are doing their best to serve the population, but additional funding and services are needed.

From March 21-24 Memorial University is marking Aboriginal Peoples Week with a series of events that are free and open to the public. On Monday evening Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild will join residential school survivor Tony Obed and others on a panel of speakers to talk about the impact residential schools had on people in Newfoundland and Labrador. For a full list of events, click here.

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