Premier Blaine Higgs has committed to looking at the system of schools for Indigenous children that operated in the province until the 1990s, but what form it will take is yet to be decided.
Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn have pledged to “get to the bottom” of the church-run day schools that operated in the province from before Confederation to 1992.
“We are going to investigate every one of these day schools in the province of New Brunswick and determine why, if any of these children didn’t come home, why that happened,” Dunn said in question period on Tuesday.
The promise came after a moment of silence in the assembly to recognize all those who died in Canadian residential and day schools.
Last week, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which has sparked calls for investigations on the grounds of other schools across the country.
New Brunswick did not have any Indian residential schools, but 12 Indian day schools operated in the province at various times between 1880 and 1992. The final school to close was in Metepengiag. Indigenous children were often sent to the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia.
The Sussex Indian Academy, also known as the Sussex Vale Indian Day School, was a pre-Confederation iteration of what would go on to become part of the Indian residential and day school system, where Indigenous children were contracted as indentured servants. The school operated from 1796 to 1826.
Dunn acknowledged Tuesday that the intent of day schools was much the same as residential ones.
“They were deemed day schools, but they actually existed for the same reason, which was assimilation,” Dunn said.
“This is devastating news in terms of what we’re seeing from B.C. We need to know what went on in New Brunswick. We need to get to the bottom of that, we need seek out the truth, to find out what occurred.”
But details of what exactly the government will do as it looks into the history of the schools remain unclear. Dunn said the first step will be to reach out to Indigenous leaders but said she had spoken with just one chief as of Tuesday afternoon. She said she hoped to schedule a call with all the province’s chiefs soon to speak about how to move forward.
Dunn’s relationship with Indigenous leaders has been rocky since taking over the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio in September. The government’s refusal to call an inquiry into systemic racism in the province has led to calls for her resignation and for Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik chiefs to pull out of a committee guiding the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
“There’s a genuine interest here from the province of New Brunswick to work on this file and I think we need to come together over this event and many others like it and we need to work together on changing things moving forward,” Dunn said.
“I’m hoping this will be an opportunity to do that.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.