On November 24, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to former indigenous residential school students in Newfoundland and Labrador, including Nunatsiavut Inuit. Recognizing and resolving out – standing human rights abuses is a necessary part of the renewed Inuit to Crown relationship and is instrumental for healing and reconciliation. I am thankful for the leadership shown by the Prime Minister to settle and apologize to litigation claimants.
It is the courageous proponents of the class action lawsuit that deserve full credit for the settlement and apology. Former students, like Jim Tuttauk, Toby Obed, Fred Andersen, Cindy Lyall, and all others who bared their souls by sharing unspeakable personal stories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, made this case a national issue. I’m also appreciative of the supportive role Inuit regions and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) played over the years in demanding restitution for Nunatsiavut. Inuit unity is built upon examples like this issue — Inuit regions defending each other, Inuit regions fighting together for equality for all Inuit.
Sitting in an auditorium in Happy Valley-Goose Bay with many former residential school students, feeling the raw emotion of the moment, I thought back to 2005, when developments in the Indian residential schools class action process excluded Nunatsiavut students due to technicalities regarding federal government culpability for the schools. Through ITK’s board of directors’ processes, Nunatsiavut respectfully supported Nunavik, Nunavut, and Inuvialuit former residential school students by not fighting against a settlement. In light of the Nunatsiavut exclusion, all other Inuit regions directed ITK to lobby the federal government to settle with Nunatsiavut students. Advocating for the settlement of this lawsuit was included in my first meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. I felt empowered knowing that all Inuit Nunangat regions supported my pleas for my home region.
During the Prime Minister’s apology in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, my mind was filled with thoughts of the past and its effects on who I am and how I see the world. I recalled listening to hearings during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process, and how the stories, pain, and cries of anguish made me better understand why Inuit Nunangat needs so much healing. I remembered helping Inuit from Nunavut mobilize to attend TRC national gatherings, gaining perspective on how difficult it can be for former students leading up to and in their moments of reflection, and how incredibly resilient former students are for sharing their stories and continuously fighting for stability and peace. I will always interact with former residential school students with love and under – standing, no matter what the circumstances.
I also thought of my own family. My late father, torn away from his homeland through relocation at seven years old, torn away from his family, culture and language at nine, growing up in an orphanage in St. Anthony, Newfoundland. My late uncle Nicky, younger than my father and subjected to an entire childhood of residential schools in St. Anthony and then Northwest River. And my cousin Toby, whose story is now known across Canada — a personal history of abuse no Canadian would ever believe could happen to a Canadian child. And then my mother, a young and naïve American teacher at the time, unaware of the rampant abuse, who taught in St. Anthony and Northwest River. A person many former students have told me was the only person who showed them love and respect during their residential school years. It is so complicated and so tragic.
The past is filled with moments our personal stories hinge upon. My mother shared the following passage with me describing my father leaving St. Anthony for the last time, as she stood at the airstrip next to his younger brother Nicky. “Nicky was standing as close to the plane as he could get. He was leaning into the wind of the accelerating propeller as the pilot revved the engine and the plane taxied away. He watched the plane as its skis lifted off the pond and headed North. He watched until it became a dark speck above the distant hills. He watched until after it had become sky.”
What we all would have done, each and every one of us, to put Nicky on that plane with his brother. To reunite them with their families. To apologize to them in that moment, in 1966, and tell them we love them for who they are. I wish this not just for my father, uncle, and cousins, but to every student, every family, and all of us who are their children.
National Inuit Leader and President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami