Josie Penny was sent to school at age seven, moving from her family’s home in remote Roaches Brook, Labrador, to the village of Cartwright.
She was excited to go. There were no schools on the coast – Roaches Brook only had three families living there, and her family spent summers on Spotted Island, where her father fished for cod.
It was a “very primitive lifestyle,” she said.
“Education wasn’t a priority where I came from. Survival was,” she said. “I just wanted to go to school. I had no idea what school was like and what I was getting myself into.”
She was getting into two very difficult years at the Lockwood School, a residential school for the Aboriginal and Métis population of rural Labrador.
Upon arrival, she was deloused – dunked in a huge bathtub, something she had never seen before.
She was a bedwetter, she said, so she was frequently teased and bullied. When she was allowed to sleep in the same room as the other children, she slept on top of a rubber sheet and would “have to lie in wet pee all night long.”
At other times, she slept on the floor in the hallway, or in the bathtub, or on or under the stairs. “I have no idea what that was all about but that’s what they made me do,” she said.
“I had a lot of difficult times there. I had some good times. I was pretty resilient to a point,” she said.
“But when I was raped by a bunch of big boys in the woodshed, it kind of threw away my world.”
She was raped twice when she was nine years old, she said, and didn’t tell anyone. “It would just give them another reason to bully me, so I kept it to myself.”
“I lost my sense of compassion and feelings. I didn’t know how to feel. I was afraid to become attached to anything or anybody.”
She was lonely too, she said, spending two years away from her family. When the family eventually moved into Cartwright, she left Lockwood School and attended a regular school in the village. But her experience at Lockwood changed her, she said.
“I was very broken by that point on.”
Penny is one of an estimated 1000 to 2000 former residential school students in Newfoundland and Labrador who are part of a class action lawsuit against the federal government. The range is so big, say lawyers, because the religious organizations and provincial and federal governments failed to keep good records of who attended.
They’re seeking the same settlement that was offered to residential school survivors elsewhere in Canada in 2006 and 2007, says Kirk Baert, one of the lawyers representing the case. People in Newfoundland and Labrador were excluded from that settlement, and the subsequent apology and recognition.
According to the federal government, that’s because they weren’t responsible for what happened at the province’s five schools – founded before Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949.
“Abuse of children is tragic and unacceptable,” begins an emailed statement from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. “Canada believes that cases involving institutional liability for sexual abuse should include all those entities involved with the operation of the institution(s). Canada did not operate, manage, nor control any of the five facilities and only provided funding to the Province. These were not federal ‘Indian Residential Schools.’”
Baert disagrees. Although the schools were started before Confederation, he said, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined, the terms of the British North America Act – including the federal government’s responsibility for indigenous people – began to apply, he argues. He doesn’t think that Canada can be responsible in some provinces and not others.
“We’re saying that it doesn’t work that way. If you’re responsible, you’re responsible everywhere, you can’t pick and choose,” he said.
People who attended residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador experienced the same kinds of abuse, deprivation and attempted assimilation as those who attended similar schools elsewhere in Canada, he said, perhaps worse in some ways because the federal government funded the schools even more poorly.
“Even if Canada did not materially operate or manage the Schools, it breached its duties to the students by failing to do so in a meaningful or effective way as it alone possessed singular and exclusive jurisdiction and responsibility over Aboriginal people in Canada and failed to wholly delegate these responsibilities properly to the Province,” reads the plaintiffs’ opening argument in the case. “It failed to exercise proper oversight when it could easily have done so.”
Who exactly is responsible for the province’s residential schools is the central question in the case and remains to be determined in court. Not that it necessarily matters to the people involved, said Baert.
“To the person on the ground at the time, which branch of the government was shafting you in terms of how you’re being treated I don’t think is that important.”
The case has been going on since 2007, and finally went to trial on Sept. 28. Baert expects the trial to last until February.
Penny, who is 73 years old, testified the second week of October, telling the St. John’s courtroom about her experiences at Lockwood.
“I felt deep in my soul that it would finally give me an opportunity to validate my life. To be heard,” she said. Testifying was difficult, and she broke down two or three times, she said. But she felt it was important to speak.
“I felt an obligation to do that for all the people who can’t. To give them a voice. To give us all a voice. To finally be heard.”
“Whether anything comes of it or not is kind of irrelevant for me personally, today, but for everybody else, I just hope that we win.”
It’s possible that a settlement might come outside of the courtroom. According to comments in the Globe and Mail, Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is reviewing this case, along with many others that the government is currently pursuing in court.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett told Global News that the previous settlement happened at least partly because of discussions between the government and Aboriginal leaders outside of court. “I think is going to be a job for this government to figure out when are the courts appropriate and when are they not?”
As for Penny, after a “wreck” of a life, she said she’s doing well now. She raised four children with Keith, her husband of 52 years. And she’s written two books about her childhood and young adulthood in Labrador, one of which was nominated for an Atlantic Book Award.
She just wants Canadians to know the story of her people. “The rest of the country and the rest of the residential schools across Canada, I’m really happy for them. I’m glad they got their voice heard. For Labrador, for me, it’s par for the course. We don’t matter.”
“And that’s one of the reasons, the main reason why I want this as public as possible. To let people know that we are here. Labradorians, we’re great people, there are so few of us on earth but we do matter.”