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Remembering Nora Bernard

Today survivors of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School gathered to hear an historic apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They also gathered to pay tribute to Nora Bernard, whose tireless efforts played a key part in the multi-billion dollar Residential Schools class action settlement.

I was honoured to be invited by Nora’s family to join the gathering.

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Nora Bernard came to me 13 years ago to ask for help. She wanted to file a claim for compensation for all of the former residents of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School for loss of their language and culture.

I told her that what she wanted to do had never been done before. She asked: “So does that mean it can’t be done?”

Nora invited me to her home to hear her story, and the stories of other students from the Shubenacadie school. They convinced me that what happened to these children was incredibly wrong.

Nora Bernard filed the first class action against the federal government on behalf of survivors of a residential school, seeking compensation for loss of language and culture.

After Nora Bernard and the Shubenacadie survivors filed her claim, other survivors from other schools in other provinces filed similar class actions.

Nora was a lady of incredible warmth, strength and persistence.

She worked tirelessly for the Shubenacadie survivors, sometimes at the risk of her own health. She travelled across the country on behalf of survivors and I travelled with her to Ottawa where she testified before a Commons committee about the physical and sexual abuses that took place in the schools.

Eventually survivors across Canada began working together. In November 2005 former residential school survivors and Canada and the churches that ran the schools reached an Agreement in principle to settle the largest class action in Canadian history.

Nora never cared about money for herself. Her only concern was justice for her fellow survivors. She told me many times over the years that the most important part of any settlement had to be an apology to survivors.

Today residential school survivors heard the apology that they had been waiting for. I am honoured to have been invited to play a small part in this historic process. My only regret was that Nora was not with us today to hear the apology.

But I know she was watching…and smiling.