Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier delivered a solemn apology Friday to residential school survivors in southern Labrador, nearly six years after it was first promised.
Andrew Furey’s apology to the NunatuKavut Community Council in a small gymnasium in Cartwright, N.L., was met with a standing ovation from the audience, many of whom wore orange shirts to mark this year’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“We are sorry,” Furey told them. “We are sorry that former students experienced neglect, abuse, hardship and discrimination at the hand of people and institutions who were entrusted to provide care and nurturing.”
As the premier finished his speech, NunatuKavut President Todd Russell reached out and embraced him.
“I felt the sincerity in your words,” Russell said. “And I hope that the former students and their families have also felt it.”
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Cartwright is home to about 440 people, and it was the site of the Lockwood boarding school, which operated until 1964. Lockwood was one of five dormitory-style residential schools in the province; the last one closed in 1980.
The Lockwood school was run by the International Grenfell Association, founded by the British medical missionary, Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Others were run by missions from the Moravian Church.
Judy Pardy, a member of the local Sandwich Bay Residential School Drummers, told the crowd Friday that Lockwood opened in 1930, after a nearby residential school was burned to the ground by two students.
Labrador was hit hard by the 1918 Spanish flu, and many children in Cartwright and surrounding communities were left without parents and other family members who would have taken them in, Pardy said.
“They had no one to care for them. A boarding school should have been a good thing,” she said. “Sadly, for many, it was not.”
An estimated 573 children attended Lockwood and the nearby school that burned down; the abuse some endured still affects them, their descendants and their communities, Pardy added.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew to Labrador in 2017 to offer a federal apology after former prime minister Stephen Harper omitted the region from his apology in 2008. Harper’s Conservative government argued that Ottawa didn’t oversee those schools, as they were established before Newfoundland and Labrador became part of Canada in 1949.
Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball promised a provincial apology in 2017, but his plans to deliver it in 2020 were thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furey told reporters on Thursday that he intends to work with the province’s other Indigenous groups to deliver each of them an apology tailored to their histories and experiences. He noted that the Innu Nation in Labrador did not accept Trudeau’s apology, since it did not include the abuse suffered by Innu children in Roman Catholic day schools and in the homes of teachers and missionaries.
The Innu Nation and the Inuit Nunatsiavut government, in northern Labrador, have condemned Furey’s choice to apologize first to the NunatuKavut Community Council, as they do not recognize the council’s claims of Inuit identity.
The NunatuKavut Community Council says it represents about 6,000 Inuit in south and central Labrador.
Furey promised members on Friday that the province’s history of residential schools will be neither forgotten nor repeated.
“Children in these schools were physically separated from their communities, their traditions and their culture,” he said. “We understand that these actions disconnected children from their Inuit culture. For many of you, that loss was severe. Many of these impacts are still felt across NunatuKavut today.”
Russell said he hoped the apology would be a turning point along a path to reconciliation.
“Today is about healing,” he said. “Today we are here as a testament to the strength and resilience of former students.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2023.