Nova Scotia

Residential school survivors gather on apology day

Residential school survivors and their families gathered on a hilltop in central Nova Scotia for a "letting go" ceremony Wednesday, ahead of a historic apology from the federal government.

Wednesday was a day of mixed emotions for Frank Augustine, one of the survivors of the only aboriginal residential school in Atlantic Canada.

Hours before a historic apology from the federal government, which began at 4 p.m. AT, Augustine was in central Nova Scotia as survivors and their relatives gathered for a "letting go" ceremony at the site of their former residential school.

It was tough to hear the stories again, he said, but at the same time, he found it comforting to be around fellow students.

"It's just being with other residential school survivors that brought things back that shouldn't have been brought back," said Augustine, from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick.

"Everyone's talking about the things that happened. But you just can't ignore it. You're there and you deal with it."

Augustine attended the residential school outside Shubenacadie from 1951 to 1959. He was one of 2,000 Mi'kmaq and Maliseet children from across Atlantic Canada who were forced to attend the school up until 1968.

Many students say they suffered some form of physical, sexual and psychological abuse by the church officials who ran the school.

The system was "cultural genocide," Mi'kmaq elder Noel Knockwood told the crowd.

"Some of you have suffered the beatings, the pain," he said. "You were very young at the time. It's a miracle you have survived."

Following the ceremonies at the old school site — now home to a factory that makes irrigation tubing — a group of red-skirted girls led a procession down the hill to the old train station, singing and playing drums.

RCMP brought up the rear, a reminder of the police, priests and government agents who accompanied the children on their forced journey to the school.

Marchers later made their way to Indian Brook to watch a live feed of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology in the House of Commons.

The Canadian government acknowledged a decade ago the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in the now-defunct network of federally financed, church-run residential schools, but Harper's statement marked the first time a prime minister has made a formal apology over the program.

Last fall, the government formalized a $1.9 billion compensation plan for victims.

Wednesday's ceremonies in Nova Scotia also included a tribute to Nora Bernard, the Mi'kmaq elder who spearheaded the long legal campaign for compensation.

Bernard was beaten and stabbed to death in December at her home in Millbrook. Her grandson has been charged with murder.

With files from the Canadian Press