Former residential school students hope for apology, compensation

'It's time for the government to be honest and say: "Yes, this did happen"'

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. —  James Tuttauk will be among hundreds of former residential school students anxiously watching for any sign Tuesday from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Supreme Court of a settlement he says is long overdue.

An update on efforts to resolve a class-action lawsuit filed by plaintiffs alleging abuse and cultural losses is expected in St. John’s, nearly 10 years after litigation began.

“It’s time for the government to be honest and say: ‘Yes, this did happen,”’ Tuttauk said from the Inuit community of Hopedale on the Labrador coast. “The money is always good but an apology is a big thing. To be believed, to have the country believe us.

“They ruined our culture, they ruined our language.”

Tuttauk said former residential school students in the province were devastated to be excluded from then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008. A related compensation deal paid more than $4 billion to those who attended what were known as Indian residential schools across the rest of Canada.

The previous Conservative government argued Ottawa was not responsible for running schools in North West River, Cartwright, Nain and Makkovik — all in Labrador — or in St. Anthony in northern Newfoundland.

The International Grenfell Association ran three of the schools, while the German-based Moravian Missionaries ran the other two.

Related reading: First came truth, now comes the hard part 

Defence documents denied the Newfoundland and Labrador schools were “akin” to now-defunct institutions under the federal Indian Act that were the subject of the federal Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs countered that, after the province joined Confederation in 1949, Ottawa had the same legal duty to aboriginal students in the province as elsewhere in Canada.

There was a change in tone after the Liberals took power last fall. Lawyers for both sides began working in February to reach a settlement by the end of this month. Otherwise, litigation is expected to resume.

Tuttauk was nine years old when he moved into the residential school in North West River. He accuses a former male staff member of molesting him during bath time and says he was sexually abused for almost three years before he hitchhiked to nearby Goose Bay to be with his mother, who was ill.

Tuttauk, now 55, is a father of five and grandfather of four who has worked as a heavy equipment operator. He was also mayor of Hopedale but said he stepped down last November as the stress of the ongoing trial triggered awful memories.

Twenty-nine class-action members took the stand — the first time former residential school students were required to describe their trauma in open court.

What also gnaws at Tuttauk is the loss of his language, Inuktitut, during his time at the school.

“I was fluent when I got there,” but he now speaks just a few words recalled from childhood. He wants Ottawa to fund language programs to undo some of that damage.

“They basically crucified our culture,” Tuttauk said. “We have post-traumatic stress disorder. Inter-generational trauma has been rampant, big time.”

An apology and compensation won’t fix years of suffering, he said. But he hopes for action soon before more aging former students die without seeing justice.

More than 100 class members had passed away as of last February, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

“It will help us get on the right track,” Tuttauk said of a settlement. “It will take years for us to get back.”

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