New Brunswick

Higgs commits to looking at Indigenous day schools, but details are vague

The Higgs government has made a vague commitment to “get to the bottom” of what happened at government-run schools for Indigenous children in New Brunswick.

Higgs says disagreements with Indigenous community won't get in the way of reviewing day schools

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he hopes to have more discussion with Indigenous people in the province around the issue of residential schools and day schools. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The Higgs government has made a vague commitment to "get to the bottom" of what happened at government-run schools for Indigenous children in New Brunswick.

Premier Blaine Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn both say they want to help find out more about the schools and hope that other disagreements with First Nations won't get in the way of that historical reckoning.

"We all have challenges and we all have issues we will not agree on, and that's part of the process," Higgs said Tuesday. "But we should understand and agree that the compassion that we share as a society is real." 

The comments come after the news that the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

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In a message of condolence in the legislature, Higgs said he was "committed at this time to review the operations of day schools in the Province of New Brunswick and examine children who did not make it home and why.

"We will investigate each and every one of these located in New Brunswick."

Dunn acknowledged she had only managed to speak to one chief as of Tuesday afternoon when she said in Question Period that the government "is going to be doing everything that we can. … We will get to the bottom of all of this." 

New Brunswick had none of the residential schools that the federal government established in the decades after Confederation.

But the colonial government planned so-called "Indian Schools" in the late 18th century, eventually consolidating them in a single school known as the Sussex Indian Academy in Sussex Vale.

That school closed in 1826. Post-Confederation, the federal government funded 12 day schools for Indigenous children, run by churches. The last one to close was in Metepenagiag in 1992.

Tuesday's commitment to look into what happened at those schools has no budget attached to it, no deadline and no clear process.

"We don't know enough about what happened in the province of New Brunswick to understand exactly what we're looking for at this time," Dunn said, promising to engage with First Nations chiefs for guidance on how to approach it.

"This is all rapidly unfolding as we speak so those details haven't been worked out yet." 

Building a bridge

Higgs and Dunn have angered First Nations chiefs with their refusal last summer to call an inquiry into systemic racism and with their decision earlier this year to terminate gas tax revenue-sharing agreements with the bands.

The premier said the "unconscionable" treatment of Indigenous children at government-run schools is a unique one that warrants special attention regardless of disagreements on other issues.

"I'm hopeful we can have that discussion and maybe it builds a bridge to other discussions, but we should put this one in a bucket by itself and say we can all agree that we need to understand what happened here." 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.