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Canada’s Justin Trudeau apologizes to Newfoundland and Labrador survivors of residential schools

First Nations students at a residential school.These are students at a residential school in Fort Simpson, NWT, 1922.

In June of 2008 the then Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology to the survivors of the Indian Residential School system in the country, the apology coming after a settlement two years earlier.

However Harper left out the survivors of residential schools from Newfoundland and Labrador.  He and his conservative government argued that the 5 Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools in question were not, strictly speaking, created or overseen by the Canadian government.

At a gathering of survivors and leaders in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the country’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau made amends for that omission.  Trudeau “humbly” apologized to the Innu, Inuit and NunatuKavut students for the abuse they suffered at the schools and their loss of cultural identity.

The apology comes with a monetary settlement negotiated last year of some $50 million.

“The treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools a dark and shameful chapter in our country’s history,” Trudeau began.  “By acknowledging the past and educating Canadians about the experiences of Indigenous children in these schools, we can ensure that this history is never forgotten.”

He added that “the kind of thinking that led to the establishment of the residential school system and left deep scars for so many has no place in our society. It was unacceptable then and it is unacceptable now.”

“I humbly stand before you to offer a long-overdue apology,” an emotional Trudeau said.  “On behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians.  To all of you we are sorry.”

Harper and his conservative government, in a glaring and much talked about omission, left out the 5 residential schools because they had been set-up and administered before Newfoundland and Labrador joined confederation in 1949.

Residential schools in Canada

The residential school system, put into practice by the Canadian government of the day along with Christian churches, was established in the 1880’s; the last one closed in 1996.  Some 150,000 indigenous students attended the schools, torn from their families and from the only culture they knew.

While they were in operation, it is estimated 30 percent of indigenous children attended a residential school.  Some figures say over 3,200 students died while attending the schools, others insist more died.  Overcrowded conditions, nutritional shortcomings and a lack of adequate medical staff and equipment helped make some schools a breeding ground for illnesses.

While some indigenous leaders in the province have said they do not accept the Trudeau apology, many others have accepted it.  So too have many survivors.

Cindy Dwyer is a survivor of the Yale School, run by International Grenfell Association (IGA), in North West River, where she went from the age of 5 to 15.  She was in attendance for the apology given by Trudeau and told the CBC she was a victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the school.

Harper’s failure to include Newfoundland and Labrador residential school survivors in his 2008 apology was a “slap in the face” to Dwyer, but she said she accepts the apology by Trudeau and believes she and her people can better move forward because of it.

“I accept his apology,” she said.  “I think he was sincere.  It was really emotional.”

As of December of 2012, over $1.62 billion in compensation had been paid to nearly 80,000 survivors of Canadian residential schools.


About the Author

Marcus Hondro
Marcus Hondro

Actor, writer, father, gadfly, ‘Nucks fan.

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