When Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology to survivors of the Indian residential school system in 2008, it excluded 1,200 survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador. The government’s reasoning: when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, British and German missionaries were already operating there. Yes, it was terrible, but not the federal government’s problem, and there would be no financial settlement.
Toby Obed, of Hopedale Nunatsiavut in Northern Labrador, wasn’t impressed. For years he has fought for a settlement for residential school survivors in the province, arguing the federal government has the same obligations there as it does across the country. On Feb. 25, 2016, lawyers representing over 1,000 Indigenous survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador will meet lawyers representing the federal government for one last time out of court. They have been in settlement talks for the past month, after a nine-year legal battle.
For Obed, who has taken this case all the way to the provincial supreme court, the end could not come soon enough. He says he attended all of the hearings over the years, as part of his own healing path and to help those who could not speak before the courts. More than 100 survivors have passed away waiting for the outcome.
It has not been an easy journey. “About this time last year I went to St. John’s,” says Obed, the exhaustion clear in in his voice. “It just really took the good out of me. I didn't think I was going to be able to last, or I didn't think I'd be able to do it. But I pulled through, I had my say, I testified, but when I got back I felt so drained. I was like a zombie, I didn't know if I was coming or going or anything. So I hope that we can have this settled once and for all.”
The abuse, neglect, and loss of culture inflicted at the five residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador has deeply affected Obed and many other Métis, Inuit, and Innu.
“Because of the residential schools, a lot of people have lost their language, their culture, their traditions,” explains Obed, who points out that the Inuktitut dialect spoken by Labrador Inuit is dying out. “[Survivors] have lost contact with their other siblings, their brothers, their sisters, their aunts, their uncles, nieces, nephews. They were very mixed [up] or confused growing up, and today as parents they are wondering how to deal and cope with their children.”
The road to recovery
In 1976, at the age of four, Obed was first placed at the Yale School in North West River in Central Labrador. He says he was beaten and abused by staff, and bullied by the other students. As a young child, he didn’t understand what was happening.
When the the school closed in 1979, Obed graduated to the foster care system, staying in over 20 foster homes until he was 16. He returned to his home community of Hopedale alone, confused, and angry.
“Having to fend for myself, and having to do everything for myself, it was very hard. I didn't take into consideration people trying to help me. I pushed away a lot of the people. I broke the law, I drank, I stole, I fought — whatever I could do, because I thought it was the only way I could get attention.”
“Now that I'm older and I can understand, and I can say now that because of my upbringing from the residential schools and the foster care, it has made me a stronger person where I'm able to stand and speak up for myself, and also to stand and speak up for others that have a hard time with it.”
One cold January night in Happy Valley-Goose Bay 20 years ago, Obed and a friend were drinking liquor straight from the bottle. Obed had become a heavy drinker as a way to deal with the pain. The last thing he remembers of that night is smashing the bottle and jumping in a cab.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital, months later, “with all these machines and bandages and everything else hooked up to me, and a nurse coming in and telling me that I had severe frostbite, and because of that they had to amputate both of my feet and my left hand.”
It took Obed time to process what had happened.
“I was the one who took the first step into accepting that I was an amputee, and once I was able to accept that, then with my friends, I used my laughter and my joking to make everyone else feel comfortable. If I didn't do that, then I think they would have all just stayed away and they would never have bothered. Now I use my disability as a teaching tool. I use it as education for myself and for other people now and then. It's made me a stronger person than what I was before.”
During his recovery Obed had to decide what kind of person he wanted to be. Hard life lessons have guided him to pursue what he believes is right, no matter how challenging.
“I’ve learned that with the residential schools and my disability, it's only made me a stronger person,” he explains.
“I'm doing it for myself, I'm doing it for those in Labrador that would like to be able to take the chance to go to court and to have their story told, and to let the federal and provincial government know that yes, we did have residential schools, and for all those who have passed away and who now have no voice.”
Hopes for a settlement
With only days left in a trial for a class action lawsuit brought by residential school survivors against Ottawa, federal government lawyers asked to take this month to negotiate outside of court.
Obed’s lawyer, Ches Crosby, is hopeful about the outcome of the case. “Of course it is a good sign, the fact the government at the 11th hour, three minutes to midnight as they say, decided to talk out of court. That’s always encouraging.”
Crosby believes that with the Liberals in power, the government is now more receptive to Indigenous issues. The Trudeau government has pledged to honour the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation, which includes a recommendation to settle ongoing court cases.
But Obed remains skeptical. He says the new government has made a lot of great promises to Indigenous people, but he will believe them when he sees them. For now, an apology seems as far away as it has ever been.
Whether a decision is reached out of court, or ordered by the judge, the case will come to an end. While Obed doesn’t want to get his hopes up, he already knows what he wants to do with his settlement: buy a home for the very first time. He has been homeless and sleeping on a cousin’s couch for years.
“One thing that I've said right from the start is if I ever get enough money, I'm buying a house for myself that I can call my own. It's something that a lot of people take for granted, and it's something that may seem small to others, but to me it would be a very big accomplishment for Toby Obed to have his own house, where Toby Obed can come and go and do as he pleases.”
If the lawyers representing the survivors and government do not reach a settlement on Feb. 26, the trial is set to resume on Monday, Feb. 28, with a verdict being issued the following Friday.