Kenneth Weistche was five or six when he was removed from Waskaganish and sent to Bishop Horden Hall residential school in Moose Factory. Eventually he was transferred to the Fort George Catholic residential school and later the St. Philip’s School at Fort George.
While the abuses suffered in those experiences were recognized by previous government and church settlements related to residential schools and day schools, Weistche’s later time spent in boarding homes in Rouyn-Noranda, Timmins and Val-d’Or were excluded – until now.
Weistche ended up becoming something of a social worker in recent years, working for wellness programs and helping community members fill out applications for residential school claims and working as a translator for them in Cree.
“I started with just my community. By the time I was done, I knew people from all nine Cree communities,” he said. The federal government hired him to assist with the process and help with translation in about 100 cases.
That experience only infuriated him more. “When we went through the process, the federal lawyers and federal government didn’t want to pay everyone,” he shared. “There were ways they could avoid payment to certain people. That got me really mad.”
During this process, Weistche saw government lawyers claim that if children were sexually abused just outside of school grounds, then the federal government wasn’t responsible. “So, who is liable? The children didn’t go there by themselves. The government forced them to go but said they’re not responsible. That got me really angry and that’s why we filed” a class-action lawsuit.
The lawsuit began in 2017 when Weistche approached David Schulze, a Montreal lawyer with the firm Dionne Schulze. “We started talking and recognized some of these things that were happening – how the feds were not responsive to certain cases I just described – lots of sexual abuse cases, lots of physical abuse cases,” he added.
After filing the suit, Weistche discovered that another group of plaintiffs, led by Reginald Percival, Nisga’a, had already filed a lawsuit. The cases ended up being combined, with Percival listed as the representative plaintiff and Weistche listed as representative plaintiff for the Quebec sub-group.
The federal government operated the Boarding Home Program for Indian Students from the 1950s through the 1980s, where an estimated 40,000 students were placed into boarding homes across Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
On January 3, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller, Percival and Weistche announced an agreement in principle. The lawsuit covers students placed in boarding homes overseen by the federal government between September 1, 1951, to June 30, 1992.
“I was taken from my family and community in 1968 when I was 13 years old. The impact on me, and on other kids like me, was devastating. I have spent decades since then, working to heal, to help others, and to explain to the broader community what happened. It has been a long journey, but I am gratified by the steps we are now taking, as a country, to acknowledge past wrongs and to move forward together,” Percival said in a statement.
“This agreement-in-principle is a milestone for thousands of Indigenous Peoples who suffered abuse while residing in a boarding home placement overseen by the federal government between 1951 and 1992. Canada will continue to work with the plaintiffs towards a final settlement agreement and approval of the Federal Court in 2023,” Miller stated.
The settlement would include compensation of $10,000 for everyone who attended boarding homes, and between $10,000 and $200,000 for those who suffered sexual or physical abuse. An additional $50 million would go towards healing and commemoration measures.
“I encourage all Cree children to make a claim,” Weistche added, saying that the compensation would also include episodes of racism and verbal abuse. “There was lots of racism in these towns. We faced a lot of physical abuse, lots of sexual abuse. Not only the girls, but it includes the boys… I also had sexual abuse happen to me.
“I went in at five years old. I didn’t understand what was going on. All I knew is I was in a residential school and went to school every day. When you get to 11, 12, 13, 14, you start to understand what’s going on. You start realizing what racism is, you see lots of racism, see lots of physical abuses, because you’re Native in a non-Native town. I got out when I was 18. It was 12 years in the system of Indian Affairs. It was living hell.”
In another incident, Weistche said he saw his own cousin, George Weistche, drown after getting a cramp in Lake Miranda. “He was about 14 or 15 and was sent home in a box, a coffin, by the federal government. I don’t know if the government ever apologized, but he still has brothers and sisters in the community today.”
Weistche said he learned to blame himself. After he got out, he married and had three children with a woman who was also an alcoholic. He ended up in a treatment centre to stop doing drugs and alcohol.
“It was really good. But halfway through the program, the psychologist who was living there and working with us, pulled me and my wife aside and said you’re doing really well, but there’s a problem: you both are raising your children with the only childhood you know, in residential schools,” Weistche recounted.
“We were raising our own children as if they were in residential school. That really hurt. It still hurts today.”
Now, Weistche hopes that negotiations can wrap up and be implemented by this upcoming fall. “Finally, we can sign the agreement and have healing for everyone. A lot of Cree people are carrying that pain and sorrow.”
After that, claimants will have three years to file for compensation. Weistche then hopes to hire a social worker in Eeyou Istchee.
“There’s still lots of work we have to do for ourselves and our communities. There’s lots of anger. We need healing programs, healing centres where people can go and let go of the pain and anger. Let’s do something, let’s make life good for our children.”