When sorry
isn't enough

Residential school survivor Toby Obed
has been through a lifetime of pain. What
good is a government apology?

Toby Obed has fought for a decade to get to this moment — a formal apology from the prime minister for what residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador went through.

The apology is part of a $50-million class-action settlement agreement between Ottawa and residential school survivors in N.L. But now that he is poised to share a stage with Justin Trudeau in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Friday, Obed isn't sure he will be able to accept it.

“I’m the one that is going to be accepting the apology on behalf of all the residential school survivors. I’ll be the one who will say, ‘Yes, we accept,’ or ‘No, we don’t,’” Obed said. “And if I don’t like his words, no, I’m sorry, I’m not taking the apology. “

Obed's skepticism has built up like scar tissue after years of abuse, neglect, exclusion and litigation.

It has taken generations to get to this moment — Justin's father, Pierre, was prime minister when Obed was sent to residential school. After years of waiting for this opportunity, Obed doesn’t know what he is going to say to Trudeau.

“I think the first thing I would be saying is that it’s about f--king time that I get my apology,” said Obed. “I can seriously see myself actually getting in his face and saying that.”

The healing has been so difficult in part because the struggle has lasted so long. Obed is now 45 years old — and the best years of his life may have been the first few.

II.

Obed was three years old when government officials knocked on the front door of his home in Hopedale, on Labrador’s north coast, and told his parents they were taking their children.

It was 1975, and Obed, his brother and two sisters were loaded onto a floatplane and taken more than 200 kilometres south to North West River. Once there, they were enrolled in the Yale School and Dormitories, a residential school run by the International Grenfell Association, a charitable organization that provided health and education services to Labrador and northern Newfoundland.

This is the dormitory where Toby Obed lived while attending the North West River residential school in the 1970s. The school itself has been razed. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

This is the dormitory where Toby Obed lived while attending the North West River residential school in the 1970s. The school itself has been razed. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

This is the dormitory where Toby Obed lived while attending the North West River residential school in the 1970s. The school itself has been razed. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

By the time he was six, Obed was fending off abusers and molesters.

“All the craziness started happening,” Obed said. “You had to learn quick how to defend yourself.”

Obed says the abuse initially came from older students in the school and dormitories — many of whom were repeating a cycle of abuse that had been inflicted on them. He says he was also beaten and physically abused by teachers and staff. 

Obed doesn’t like to discuss specific details of what happened, but it involved sexual violence.

That was his life until the school closed, in 1979. At that point, the eight-year-old Obed was thrown into the world of foster care. For the next eight years, Obed bounced from foster home to foster home, from community to community — he said he switched homes and towns about 19 or 20 times.

The abuse that started in the residential school in North West River didn’t end in the foster system — he said it became “even worse.”

“Having to live with white people, do what they do, do things the way they do, and you do this, you do that, you say this, you say that — if you don’t, you get beat,” he said. “You get beat, you get strapped, you get punished. You do what you’re told, and don’t speak back. If you say anything, you go to your room, you don’t have no supper. It was constant.”

By the time the system spit him out at 16, Obed was broken. He returned to Hopedale the product of forced re-education and reengineering, abuse and neglect, and started drinking heavily.

“I became an alcoholic,” Obed said. “That was my way to cope: Get drunk. Get drunk and try to drown out all the garbage and everything else.”

Obed spent years in a haze of alcohol and despair until one night in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in January 1993. After some heavy drinking with a friend, the 20-year-old Obed staggered outside and fell asleep in the snow. It was -50 and  he was only wearing a light jacket.

When the RCMP found him the next morning, Obed’s liver and kidneys were frozen. The frostbite was so severe, doctors had to amputate his feet, as well as his left arm below the elbow.

He was in a coma for two months. When he finally woke up, Obed found himself in a hospital in St. John’s. He was confused about what had happened and shocked by what he had lost.

“When I first woke up ... I called in the nurse,” Obed told a CBC reporter back in 1993. “I looked at my arm and I said: ‘Where is my arm? I want my hand back.’ And I look at my feet and I said the same thing.”

III.

The experience of N.L. residential school survivors is similar to that of thousands of Indigenous people across Canada. The difference is that Obed and others had to wait an extra nine years to hear the government say it was sorry.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to survivors of the residential school system in 2008, he excluded more than 1,000 people from Newfoundland and Labrador. The rationale was that schools there existed prior to the province joining Confederation in 1949, and thus weren’t created under the Indian Act, so the federal government wasn’t liable.

“It was a slap in the face to all of us here in Labrador,” Obed said. “It’s all we ever wanted, to hear the apology from the federal government for the residential school survivors in Labrador.”

They weren’t just excluded from the apology — they were also excluded from the compensation. While the Harper government agreed to pay $1.9 billion to the initial group of 80,000 residential school survivors, Newfoundland and Labrador students would get nothing.

So in 2007 — when it was clear he was being left out of the national settlement — Obed became one of the lead plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the federal government seeking an apology and $50 million in compensation. The central argument was that Ottawa owed those students the same duty of care once the province joined Confederation.

The Trudeau government agreed to settle the case in September 2016. The settlement prompted a clinical division of the compensation that paints a gruesome picture of what happened in the residential schools.

In order to calculate individual settlement payments, lawyers drafted a chart outlining the range of compensation for specific abuses. It starts at $50,000 for one or more incidents of fondling or kissing, or if nude photographs were taken of the survivor. The compensation grows as the frequency and severity of the violations increase. It caps out at $200,000, which comprises four or more incidents of anal or vaginal intercourse or penetration with an object.

Obed received the maximum.

“You know, all these different people took little bits and pieces and when you’re a target, that’s it,” Obed said.

IV.

While the money he received won’t make the pain go away, Obed said the settlement offers some hope.

His plan is to buy a house. For years he has been effectively homeless, spending a fair bit of time sleeping on a cousin’s couch. Most recently, he has been staying in an assisted-living facility.

Since he was taken from Hopedale at age three, Obed has lived in many houses. But he has never had a home, and you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about finally having a place of his own.

“Like holy shit, man, it’s crazy, I’m actually looking seriously to look at a house to buy, this is something … that I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “Now that I am somewhat financially stable, I can do it. “

"I am just going to f--king drink, and when I’m tired of drinking, maybe I’ll stop."

The apology ceremony with Trudeau is being held in an arts centre about a 40-minute drive from the residential school in North West River. Obed will take the stage both triumphant and damaged.

He has won his apology, but his injuries from that night in the snow have left him disabled. He lost his language, his culture and contact with some of his family. He hasn’t seen his younger sister Sara in person in 37 years, when they left the residential school and were separated, each plunged into the foster care system.

Obed still drinks, and he doubts he will ever be able to stop.

“I tried treatment and I tried counselling, and all that craziness, and it only made it worse. So I said, f--k it, no more treatment centres, no more counsellors, no more bullshit like that. I am just going to f--king drink, and when I’m tired of drinking, maybe I’ll stop,” he said. “That’s where I am right now.”

Obed still harbours bitterness over being excluded from the initial apology, a feeling that hasn’t abated with a change in government and a seeming change in approach to Indigenous affairs. Obed is skeptical of Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda, calling it just “another word that they are trying to make fancy.”

“Bad enough after all these years that we’ve been left on our own to deal with our own demons and everything else,” he said. “Now we have to deal with reconciliation. Just another big old word.”

Underscoring all this residual anger is the fact that many of the survivors who were part of Obed’s class-action settlement might not be there when Trudeau formally apologizes. The federal government is only paying for about 50 people connected to the lawsuit to attend the ceremony in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Obed says the decision to limit the travel subsidies primarily to people who testified in open court will keep many residential survivors away. The only way to get to Happy Valley-Goose Bay from the isolated Inuit towns on the coast is by plane, and flights routinely cost more than $1,000.

His brother and two sisters were part of the class-action settlement, but they never testified in open court, so they didn’t get a plane ticket. That means Obed’s sister Sara, who lives in Ontario with her teenage daughter, won’t be there.

“I was eight, she was seven, that was the last time I see her. I would love to see her, and would love to see my niece,” he says. “I’m going to be without my family again.”

Happy Valley-Goose Bay was chosen for logistical reasons, but it means hundreds of Inuit survivors would have to pay out of pocket and leave their homes to hear an apology. It’s also not on Inuit land — Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the biggest town in Labrador, but it is a white settlement that wasn’t even founded until the Second World War.

“It will put a damper on my day,” Obed said.

Even so, hundreds of survivors are expected to attend the apology. The arts centre will be full. The adjoining high school will have a video feed to handle any overflow.

Obed may not know if he will accept the prime minister’s apology. But he is certain of the impact he wants it to have.

“We’ve been fighting our battles and demons and all this craziness for all these years in our lives, a lot of it stemming from the residential schools and everything else, and now, now it’s time to heal,” Obed said. “Now it’s time to say, OK, let it all rest, let the inner child rest. Let’s grow up now, let the adult be the adult.”

(CBC)

(CBC)

(CBC)