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First Nations express concerns with day school compensation

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2022

With the July 13 deadline fast approaching to apply for the Indian day school class-action settlement, many are expressing concerns with the compensation process. According to the $1.47 billion agreement reached in 2019, former students qualify for a range of compensation between $10,000 and $200,000, based on abuse suffered. 

If class members identify acceptable reasons for their late submissions, it was announced June 13, they will receive a six-month extension. By that time, 150,000 people had submitted their claims, exceeding the expected number of claimants who attended one of almost 700 day schools that operated in Canada between 1863 and 2000.

At their annual assembly, the Chiefs of Ontario signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Trudeau requesting a two-year extension, in-person support, and amendments to the agreement so survivors can modify their claimed level of compensation. 

“When this first came out, there was a massive rush,” said Louise Mayo, a coordinator hired to assist claimants in Kahnawake, where 10 day schools operated. “A lot of people felt pushed to fill in the application when they had more to say. They realized later they should have waited and written down their narrative and applied for a higher level.”

While everyone who attended the schools is entitled to a minimum $10,000, survivors making claims for levels two to five must submit a statement disclosing details of the abuse they suffered. Mayo suggested it’s prudent for those struggling with mental health issues to seek support from a therapist, who can determine post-traumatic stress disorder through a series of questions.

“They’re going to ask how this affected you in long-term harm,” Mayo told the Nation. “Some people went through drinking or drugs to deal with what happened to them in school. We work with a therapist or doctor to provide the proper diagnosis and that attestation to ensure their package is complete.”

Students in federal day schools suffered much of the same abuses and assimilation practices as those who were forced to attend residential school. Besides the free legal counsel provided by law firm Gowling WLG, many Indigenous communities hired coordinators like Mayo to support former students.

“Our community had the foresight to see this was a very big initiative that had to be dealt with,” Mayo explained. “Knowing how to ask specific questions based on the community you’re from enhances the ability to have that person expand on their narrative. Sometimes it takes two or three sessions so we can slowly take the band-aids off.”

Mayo helps survivors communicate traumatic memories and to retrieve necessary school and medical records to confirm an appropriate level of compensation. 

Survivors who lived until July 31, 2007, are eligible, though estate claims require additional paperwork. Then, there are those who need many attempts to complete their applications because of the harm they experienced. 

“When you’re digging up all those old ghosts, it’s hard,” said Robert Maytwayashing, an Anishinaabe Elder from Lake Manitoba First Nation. “That’s why a lot of people are just going for that 10 grand, because it’s too painful.”

While class counsel encourages taking your time before submitting, that response rings hollow for Saskatoon lawyer Nicholas Racine, who has assisted over 400 survivors with their claims. On behalf of client Mary Rose Naytowhow, Racine successfully won a court order in 2020 enabling day school survivors to hire legal counsel of their choice. 

“It’s as if time will magically provide clarity and proper guidance,” said Racine. “Some claimants have literally been working years on their application with a profound amount of anxiety to relive the abuse. It’s not time that’s needed – it’s direct individualized attention from someone who can provide knowledge and experience about the process.”

Racine was also one of two lawyers who filed motions with the Federal Court last September asking that claimants be able to file additional information and modify their claim level before receiving a decision. These motions for ongoing progressive disclosure were dismissed and are currently being appealed. 

“It’s heartbreaking to tell survivors who received far less than they deserved they have no recourse when it’s not their fault,” Racine told the Nation. “So far, the parties have refused to take any steps to remedy the deficiencies in this process. It seems their main concern is expediency, just get it over and done with, to the detriment of survivors.”

Despite difficulties getting information from Gowling’s call centre, Racine urges survivors to demand from class counsel the direct legal advice that they’re entitled to. Mayo also criticized the impersonal system in which claims regularly go missing and encourages community members to confirm their submissions have been received. 

Although Mayo understands that some will refuse on principle to apply for this “cheap gift from the federal government”, she believes it’s important that survivors force the country to acknowledge this dark chapter of its history. With the second largest number of day school students in Canada, this process has provoked profound emotions in Kahnawake.

“All this trauma has been held in a very tight bottle for many years, in my case 50 years,” shared Mayo. “It has been this huge pink elephant in the community that people said we didn’t see but now we do. It’s empowering, but at the same time, it’s sad.”

Mayo described  culture and language loss that disconnected students from their families and the stolen potential from being made to feel inferior. She said abuse became so normalized that survivors only realized years later after having their own children.

As her community establishes support groups to address this trauma, Mayo is now witnessing former students reminiscing about school experiences on the street and even exchanging letters that support each other’s abuse claims. 

“I want to encourage people to not sit in silence,” Mayo concluded. “If you need help, get out and ask for it. So many people have stuck that inner child deep inside their core. That child needs to be addressed for healing to begin.”

  • Class Counsel: 1-844-539-3815
  • Claims Administrator: 1-888-221-2898
  • Hope for Wellness: 1-855-242-3310 or online at hopeforwellness.ca.

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.