Nfld. & Labrador

'The beginning of the end': N.L. residential school survivors assess apology, look to the future

After decades of anger, frustration, and lingering trauma, residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador received a long-awaited apology from the government of Canada on Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Cindy Dwyer says that she believes Trudeau's apology was sincere

Residential school survivors Cindy Dwyer, Rose Pamak, and Joanna Michel hope the long-awaited apology from the government of Canada brings them closer to healing. (Mark Quinn and Jacob Barker/CBC)

After decades of anger, frustration, and lingering trauma, residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador received a long-awaited apology from the government of Canada on Friday.

For Cindy Dwyer, the formal apology by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  in Happy Valley-Goose Bay was the acknowledgment she has been waiting on for a long, long time.

From age five to 15, she was a student at the Yale School run by the International Grenfell Association (IGA) in North West River, where she says she was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused.

In 2008, she watched in anger as Stephen Harper apologized for the federal government's involvement in the residential school system in Canada, but not in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The apology conspicuously ignored residential schools in this province, because the schools were set up before Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949

At the time, Dwyer felt righteous fury, telling CBC News the exclusion was "a slap in the face."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives his apology address to hundreds of former students of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday. (CBC)

But on Friday, she felt relief as the prime minister apologized on behalf of the government, and hoped it would signal a new phase in her life marked by permanent healing.

"I hope this is the beginning of the end of everything, and I hope I can start to move forward and put all this behind me," said Dwyer.

While the Innu Nation declined to accept the apology, Dwyer said she believed it was genuine.

"I accept his apology. I think he was sincere. It was really emotional," she said.

Doesn't erase what happened

Joanna Michel, a residential school survivor who also lived in the dorms in North West River in the 1970s, maintained that today's apology could never erase what happened at the schools.

But it was another step in her journey towards closure.

​"It's a good day today to see that a lot of people moved on and it's time to move on. I've gotten the story out and my family know now what happened — that chapter of my life. So I want to move on as well."

Residential school survivor Toby Obed gives an emotional address following Justin Trudeau's apology, accepting the Prime Minister's words as the first step towards healing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

Nain's Rose Pamak, who spent a year at the school in North West River in 1960, said she also accepted the apology.

"I was only there one year, but that was enough. I thought about my experience and I thought about other people who were brought there to live who had no parents to go back to and who didn't have a missionary school like we did."

Settlement preceded apology

Lawyer Steven Cooper, who attended Friday's apology ceremony, previously negotiated a $50-million settlement from the Trudeau government in 2016 on behalf of around 1,000 students who attended residential schools in the province.

Lawyer Steven Cooper, who represented residential school survivors in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, says he's satisfied with Trudeau's apology. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

He said the terms of that settlement did not mandate that the government of Canada deliver a formal apology.

"This was a voluntary, very sincerely delivered, complete apology, acceptance of liability, and recognition of the experiences that the residential school survivors in this province went through," said Cooper.

"We heard the sort of things that the prime minister had to say, he checked everything off the list that we gave him, plus some."

IGA releases statement

The IGA, which ran many of the residential schools in Labrador and another in Newfoundland, also issued an apology on Friday.

In a statement, chairman Keating Hagmann wrote, "The IGA offers its sincere apology for in any way not sheltering these individuals from the suffering they endured. In the spirit of reconciliation, IGA looks forward to walking into the future with all peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Hagmann missed the event due to a medical procedure.

With files from Mark Quinn, Katie Breen, and Jacob Barker