ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Jimmy Tuttauk was working on the remote coast of northern Labrador when he first heard that Ottawa was settling with former students of residential schools.
It was 2007 and he was listening to a radio news report that sent his heart soaring — until he realized the awful truth.
“My God, how could they have left us out?” Tuttauk recalled thinking as it became clear Aboriginal children who suffered in similar dorms and classrooms in Labrador and northern Newfoundland were excluded.
“It was never about the compensation,” he said of the decade-long legal odyssey that followed. That traumatic journey, fraught with nightmares of abuse that never fully fade, culminates Friday with what Tuttauk and so many others have longed for: an official apology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to attend a ceremony in Goose Bay, including Inuit singers and drummers, that’s expected to draw more than 300 people.
Tuttauk, 57, will be there.
“Mean, nasty things happened to little children under the government’s watch,” he said from his home in the Inuit community of Hopedale.
“It was about the apology and finally being recognized that we weren’t lying all these years.”
The previous Conservative government argued Ottawa was not responsible for 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 Germany-based Moravian Missionaries ran the other two.
They were left out of then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology in the House of Commons in 2008. Nor were they eligible for a related compensation deal that has paid out more than $4 billion to those who attended residential schools across the rest of Canada.
Lawyers for more than 800 plaintiffs countered that, after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, Ottawa had the same legal duty to Aboriginal students in the province.
The Liberal government offered a $50-million package last year to settle claims of sexual and physical abuse along with loss of language and culture.
Students who lived in school residences for less than five years were eligible for $15,000 in general compensation while those who lived there five years or more could receive $20,000.
Compensation for sexual or significant physical abuse up to about $200,000 was based on sworn testimony.
More than 120 members of the class action died waiting for a resolution.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven Cooper said 960 former students or their estates have received payments. Of those, around 120 were eligible for higher amounts for the worst abuse.
“We’ve certainly asked the prime minister to be sensitive to the fact that there was a large group of people who suffered similarly before Newfoundland joined Confederation.”
Cooper said the lawsuit did not seek damages prior to 1949 because modern courts lack jurisdiction before that date, when Newfoundland was its own dominion.
Some former students are rejecting the apology on that basis, but “the vast majority” accept it, he added.
“There’s going to be a lot of tears shed,” he said of Friday’s ceremony.
“I have never in my life, and I know that I never will, meet a more loving, patient, understanding, forgiving group of humans.”
Tuttauk received both types of compensation. He is among 29 former students who were the only ones in Canada forced to testify in open court about horrific ordeals many had never spoken of before.
He was nine years old when he moved into the school in North West River. He has described how a former male staff member molested him during bath time, and how he was sexually abused for three years before hitchhiking to nearby Goose Bay to be with his mother, who was ill.
“I believe my mother got convinced it was in the best interest for me and my younger sister to go there for education and probably betterment,” he said. “I don’t know, but it wasn’t for the better, I can tell you.”
Tuttauk later battled addiction and worked as a heavy equipment operator. He is the father of five children and now has six grandchildren. Today, he helps young people overcome addiction.
To know a prime minister will at last apologize “means everything,” he said.
Still, Tuttauk wants to see more federal support for clean drinking water, housing and other needs in Aboriginal communities.
“There’s little kids still suffering today.”
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