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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Day-school survivors entitled to compensation, but concerns remain

BY Ben Powless Jan 30, 2020

For nearly 140 years, nearly 200,000 Indigenous children across the country attended one of nearly 700 Indian day schools that sought to assimilate them and rid them of their culture and language.

A court settlement now aims to compensate the survivors who experienced harm in those schools. The claims process began January 13 and will continue until July 13, 2022.

According to a statement made by plaintiffs Roger Augustine, Claudette Commanda, Angela Sampson and Mariette Buckshot, “This settlement is a turning point for all who have suffered and continue to suffer from their experiences, and from their family members’ experiences. It is a milestone on our path to healing. With this settlement, we will continue to work towards reclaiming our languages, cultures and traditions, for our children and our grandchildren.”

Claims may range from $10,000 up to $200,000 depending on the abuse suffered. Another $200 million will fund commemoration projects, health and wellness projects, and language and cultural initiatives.

The settlement has also received criticism, notably from the Cree Nation Government.

“We didn’t support the agreement,” stated Cree Nation Government Executive Director Bill Namagoose.

Namagoose points out that as opposed to the $10,000 minimum payment from the residential-schools agreement, former students have to make a claim of abuse here, which may retraumatize individuals.

“Why burden people with that?” he asked. “They were put in harm’s way, and they should be entitled to the payment.”

The process started in 2009, when Garry McLean and others first filed a legal action seeking compensation for those who attended Indian day schools but were excluded from the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

McLean was forced to attend the Dog Creek Day School in Manitoba starting in 1957 at the age of seven. He said he was abused there and forced to speak English, a language he didn’t know.

McLean passed away from cancer in February 2019, just a month before a settlement was reached with Canada. In August 2019, the courts approved the settlement, and after a delay, the claims process has now begun.

The day schools first opened in 1863, with the last one closing in 2000. There were nine schools in Eeyou Istchee, and another in Moose Factory.

Like residential schools, many were affiliated with churches. However, there were vastly more day schools operating than residential schools – 699 compared to 130.

“Canada is committed to righting historical wrongs, and will continue to work with survivors in the spirit of healing, commemoration and reconciliation,” Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said in a statement.

Gowling LWG, the law firm behind the class action, said in a written statement that “the baseline harm for claims is such that nearly everyone who is eligible for the settlement” will see the minimum $10,000 in compensation.

Namagoose also points to the $60 million fee collected by Gowling LWG, with no funding going directly to communities. Namagoose said that chiefs and councils should get a share of the funding to help the victims, including many Elders who may not be able to access the website or even know about the settlement.

In response, Gowling LWG noted that the legal fees are in the range of 3% of the value of the overall settlement, and that the legal fees do not take away from any of the compensation funds.

Gowling LWG also pointed out that through their phone line, survivors can request to speak to someone in Cree. They said they are committed to providing information through the media, public service announcements, communicating with Indigenous community centres, social media, and available to visit communities.

Namagoose says he has invited the firm to visit Eeyou Istchee and help answer questions.

“I’m glad that people will get some compensation and some closure,” Namagoose said, adding that he attended the Rupert House Day School (in present-day Waskaganish).

Former day-school students can visit the website indiandayschools.com or call 1-888-221-2898, where they can ask for forms to be sent by mail. Claims can be sent in by email, mail or fax until the July 2022 deadline.

Family members may make a claim on behalf or any survivors who died after 2007.

Mental health and crisis support counselling is also available in English, French and Cree through Hope for Wellness at 1-855-242-3310 or hopeforwellness.ca.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.