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A Long Journey

Residential school survivors tell their stories in new ISER book

Research

By Darrell Roberts

In an intimate and informative new book, a Memorial University anthropologist shines a light on a painful, yet important part of Newfoundland and Labrador history.

Now available from ISER Books, Dr. Andrea Procter’s A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland, takes an in-depth look at the boarding schools operated by the Moravian Mission and the International Grenfell Association in North West River, Cartwright, Makkovik, Nain and St. Anthony.

These schools, like other residential schools across Canada, aimed to dramatically change and transform Inuit and Innu children by separating them from their families, communities and culture.

Sharing stories

Left out of the national apology and reconciliation process begun in 2008, residential school survivors in Labrador and Newfoundland received a formal apology from the Canadian government in 2017.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Healing and Commemoration project was created as part of a government and community effort to acknowledge the resilience of former students and begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

A significant component of this project involved community healing sessions across the province where former students shared stories of their experiences at residential schools.

With 20 years of experience working on community projects in Labrador, Dr. Andrea Procter was invited to record the stories which came out of these sessions. Dr. Procter explained, “As an anthropologist, I am always listening for people’s stories and experiences.”

Dr. Andrea Proctor on the Grand River in Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

In his forward to the book, James Igloliorte, the ministerial special representative for the Healing and Commemoration Project, says that Dr. Procter “joins an impressive group of scholars and historians who are expanding our knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of Labrador.”

Amplifying their voices

The stories of former residential school students are at the forefront of A Long Journey.

“I knew how important this issue was for everyone,” said Dr. Procter. “This made the research both fascinating and terrifying. The weight of responsibility was tremendous — I knew I had to produce something that was worthy of the students and their families, and that fully reflected their experiences.”

She points out that the Moravian Mission and the International Grenfell Association produced numerous accounts of their institutions, but the voices of survivors have been left unheard.

MacMillan Mission School, Nain, c.1930.
Photo: Them Days archive

“It was very important to us that we addressed this imbalance by highlighting as many student voices as possible in the book.”

Watch the video below to hear the first-person account of Muriel Andersen, who was sent to a residential school as a child in Labrador.

Indigenous children were often forced to leave their families and travel to other communities in order to attend the boarding schools.

This disconnect in families often resulted in the loss of cultural traditions and ways of life.

“I felt like an alien in my beloved home,” says Rose Oliver, describing her experience returning to her Inuit community after attending the school in North West River.

While chronicling the painful history of this province’s residential schools, A Long Journey also sheds light on the resilience of Inuit and Innu communities as they continue to fight for their children’s education.

Schoolgirls fetching water, ca. 1937. From left are Silpa Sillitt, Katie Sillitt, Katie Sillitt, Melena Barbour and Mary Sillitt.
Photo: Them Days archive

“In Labrador, students and their communities were not passive victims in the school system,” Dr. Procter said. “They actively confronted and boycotted the schools when the system wasn’t providing the education or the care needed.”

Conscious of the responsibility she had towards Indigenous communities in Labrador and Newfoundland, Dr. Proctor says she actively relied on the input of former students and other experts to make sure the book accurately reflected people’s lived experiences.

“I think this kind of collaborative scholarship is crucial in recounting and interpreting stories, especially in regard to Indigenous histories.”

Tragic, illuminating, and poignant, A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland is a fascinating and heartbreaking examination of the boarding schools in North West River, Cartwright, Makkovik, Nain and St. Anthony.

In doing so, this riveting book reminds us of the importance of healing and reconciliation for all Canadians.


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