Fred Andersen and other former students of residential schools in Labrador will be in court in St. John's Tuesday to fight for an apology and compensation from Ottawa.
They're among just over 1,000 plaintiffs in five certified class-action lawsuits who were excluded from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology in 2008 and a related compensation package.
Lawyers for the federal government deny it was responsible for schools located in St. Anthony, Cartwright, North West River, Nain and Makkovik that opened before the province joined Confederation in 1949.
The International Grenfell Association ran the first three, while the German-based Moravian Missionaries ran the other two.
"We had no choice. We had to go," Andersen, now 62, said in an interview. He recalled how frightened he was leaving Makkovik, an Inuit community on the Labrador coast, at the age of 13.
"When my turn came, the plane just arrived in September and away we go."
Andersen wound up at the Yale School in North West River. He especially remembers the crowded student dormitory as about 40 older and younger boys were separated by a washroom with shared tubs and no showers.
"We had bunks one on top of the other. Very crowded. No privacy."
Andersen struggled to adjust to what he called a "boot camp" environment of strict rules, and a diet of store-bought food and vegetables so different from the wild meat and fish he grew up on.
He lived at the school for most of the next four years. He said he did his best to stand up for kids who were bullied and that he was aware of both physical and sexual abuse, although he was not a direct victim.
"It was tough on my parents, it was tough on us kids and all the other kids who had to go through this. I think they should be compensated, and there should be an apology."
Federal government denies wrongdoing
In its statement of defence responding to the claims, which have not been proven in court, the federal government denies any wrongdoing or responsibility.
It says the plaintiffs wrongly suggest the Labrador schools were "akin" to now defunct institutions under the Indian Act that were the subject of the federal Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
That deal, according to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website, had paid out about $4 billion in common experience and independent assessment compensation as of Dec. 31, 2013.
"The schools in this case were not Indian residential schools," says the statement of defence. "Canada did not, either under the Indian Act or by other purpose or authority, create, operate or manage the schools."
Steven Cooper, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said Ottawa after 1949 had the same legal duty to aboriginal students in the Labrador schools as elsewhere in Canada.
He said federal lawyers are drawing an "artificial distinction" that will force aging former students to testify about horrific abuse.
"Ultimately, the basis upon which they settled in the rest of the country is exactly the same law and facts as exists and existed in Newfoundland and Labrador post-1949," he said in an interview.
"After Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation, they were bound by the same fiduciary and constitutional — and therefore the same legal obligations — as every other province in the Confederation."
Cooper said litigation has already dragged on for seven years as plaintiffs, many now in their 70s and 80s, die off.
Ches Crosbie, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, said reconciliation on par with Harper's apology to other former students is at least as important as compensation.
"The exclusion from that apology, one person told me, was like getting a dagger through the heart."