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‘Listen to us,’ says residential school survivor as N.L. premier begins apologies in Labrador

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador kicks off a string of apologies to residential school survivors on Wednesday, one survivor has advice for how he can make a lasting impact.

Miriam Lyall plans to attend the apology in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. An Inuk from Nunatsiavut, Lyall said she would have preferred Andrew Furey stay longer to talk to survivors, instead of the six short visits he’s planned over the course of three days.

“Listen to us, not just apologize and then go all the way back to St. John’s, but make sure that what we are doing is fruitful. That’s all I can say,” Lyall said. 

Lyall was removed from her home in Hopedale at 13 years old and taken to the North West River dormitory — a place with a dark history of abuse. 

Lyall said she was made to be ashamed of who she was as Inuit, wasn’t allowed to speak her language, and suffered trauma that led to decades of depression. 

“I no longer knew my parents,” Lyall said about the experience. “I feel bad about that feeling of shame, but after all those 40 and 50 years, I’m finally realizing that it wasn’t our fault.”

Lyall said she was skeptical about the apology when it was announced. She’s still angry with the perpetrators who abused and took advantage of little girls and boys, but hopes the apologies may help people on their healing journeys. 

A woman in a blue shirt and jeans sits on a couch in a living room.
Lyall stayed at the North West River dormitory as a youth. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“This was really, really harmful. I mean back for generations and generations. No wonder there was generational impacts,” Lyall said. “I just hope everything will turn out for the better from the apology.” 

The apologies come at a turbulent time for the provincial government’s relations with Indigenous groups in Labrador.

There have been calls from the Nunatsiavut Government and Innu Nation for Furey’s Minister of Indigenous and Labrador Affairs, Lisa Dempster, to resign after Furey’s apology to a different Labrador group, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC).

Both Nunatsiavut and Innu Nation believe the NCC is not an Indigenous group — a claim the NCC vehemently disputes.

The apology ceremonies are scheduled as follows:

Nov. 1

  • Rigolet, Northern Lights Academy, 11 a.m. AT
  • Postville, Recreation Centre, 3 p.m.AT

Nov. 2

  • Makkovik, Community Centre, 10 a.m. AT
  • Hopedale, Nanuk Community Centre, 3 p.m. AT

Nov. 3

  • Nain, Jeremiah Sillett Community Centre, 10 a.m. AT
  • Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Masonic Lodge, 3:30 p.m. AT

Apologies a long time coming, says NG deputy minister

Michelle Kinney, deputy minister of health and social development for the Nunatsiavut Government, said the apology has been a long time coming and each community has done their own planning based on what is best for their residential school survivors. 

“They’ll be having some cultural activities unique to their communities, accepting the apology and hopefully having some personal time for survivors to meet with the premier and speak to him directly about their experiences,” Kinney said. 

A woman in a purple shirt sits in a desk chair in an office.
Michelle Kinney is the deputy minister of health and social development for the Nunatsiavut Government. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

It was important to have ceremonies in each community to recognize the impact the schools had on every aspect of a community, Kinney said. She hopes it’s a step to healing and said many people are looking for action around reconciliation. 

“They’re looking for changes in policies and practices within the provincial government and working in partnership with Nunatsiavut Government to make some of those changes,” Kinney said. 

“I think there are some things happening and some positive steps forward and I hope that for some survivors, this will bring a bit of closure and the acknowledgement of their experience.”

Survivor in Nain calls for church apology

Norman Andersen has a different opinion. He intends to go to the provincial apology but said the residential school in Nain was run by the Moravian Church.

He says church officials should apologize to the community, not politicians. 

The Nain Boarding School operated from April 1949 to June 1973. The school was torn down in Nain in 2022.

Andersen said an apology from church officials is needed, even if the memories will still be there. 

An excavator cuts through an abandoned building. It is about a third of the way through demolishing it.
The Nain Boarding School was torn down almost one year ago in November, 2022 after the local Residential School Survivor Committee submitted a request to the community’s church group to have the building demolished as part of reconciliation between the Moravian Church and Labrador Inuit. (Submitted by Stephanie Angnatok)

He said one beating from the missionaries resulted in him being in a coma for three weeks at the hospital and conditions were not fit for children. 

“In the night time there, we had to be quiet,” Andersen said. “And in the sleeping bags and just on the bare floor. No mattress whatsoever. One blanket, you know. Seal skin sleeping bag, right? Nine months of the year.” 

Dempster not attending Nunatsiavut apologies

The apologies in Nunatsiavut come a month after Furey apologized to residential school survivors from the NunatuKavut Community Council in Cartwight. 

Amid calls for Dempster’s resignation, the Innu Nation withdrew from the premier’s Indigenous roundtable earlier this month.

Dempster will not be in attendance at the Nunatsiavut apologies, saying she has duties she needs to take care of in St. John’s as the deputy government house leader.

Kinney said the apology to NunatuKavut survivors last month did not impact the timing of the apologies to Nunatsiavut survivors.

She said Nunatsiavut took their time to prepare and that is why the ceremonies are happening now. 

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