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Abuse survivors finally to receive compensation

Abuse survivors finally to receive compensation

Posted: December 05, 2005 by: Matt Ross / Indian Country Today

OTTAWA - Almost $2 billion in Canadian funds will be paid to aboriginal survivors of the Canadian residential school system.

The settlement was announced Nov. 23, one day before the First Ministers Meeting with national aboriginal leaders convened in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Following six months of negotiations between the Assembly of First Nations and the federal government, an agreement-in-principle was signed that has resulted in the largest and most comprehensive settlement package in Canadian history.

About 86,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit are eligible to collect these payments, many of whom are more than 60 years old.

AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a survivor of these schools, spoke at a press conference in Ottawa Nov. 23. He stated that before Canada's elected politicians and Native leaders could address the health, education and social issues that are troubling the country's reserves at the First Ministers' Meeting, the legacy from this shameful past had to be resolved.
''While no amount of money will ever heal the scars, we hope the settlement package will bring comfort and a sense of victory and vindication for the children and grandchildren of survivors as well; for they, too, have suffered and witnessed the affects of the residential school legacy,'' said Fontaine.

Lump-sum payments have been calculated on a ''10 plus 3'' basis, whereby $10,000 will be given to all those who attended these schools with an additional $3,000 per year thereafter. Those who are older than 65 are immediately eligible for an early payment of $8,000.

Further, these awards will not override any pending individual lawsuits. The agreement sets aside $800 million to cover plaintiff judgments and increased the amount that can be won in court to a maximum of $275,000 while survivors have a reduced burden to substantiate their claims.

''Canada and the First Peoples of this country can be proud of this settlement package,'' Fontaine said. ''It has set the bar very high. It affirms that all races in this country are equal: none deserved to be assimilated or destroyed. It is an agreement for the ages.''

For the better part of 100 years - until the mid-1970s - the federal government operated residential schools that institutionalized aboriginals which, under the guise of education, tore the children from their families and stripped them of their heritage. By law, children as young as 4 were taken from their parents without the need for consent and were returned for only short periods of time.

In an attempt to Anglicize First Nations, school rules and civil laws forbade the use of Native languages and cultural practices. Compounding the problem within the residential schools were the numerous allegations, since proven in court, of physical and sexual abuse by the educators - most of whom were associated with the Anglican and Catholic churches.

At the press conference, several of Canada's high-ranking ministers spoke from the ruling Liberal party, including Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, about the country's historical misdeeds.

''No agreement can erase the memories of generations of pain and suffering and abuse, and that is why this agreement goes beyond monetary recognition,'' said Cotler. ''It is an agreement that seeks to provide healing, to provide reconciliation, to provide the capacity for renewal.''

Besides individual payments, the settlement package will also include funding of $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the goal of informing the public about residential schools. There will also be community truth-telling processes, while individuals will be encouraged to file their own personal statements for archival purposes.

Also benefiting from this agreement is the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which will receive $125 million over the next five years. Chairing this foundation, which has been in operation since 1998, is George Erasmus, the AFN national chief from 1985 - '91.

Speaking from Kelowna, Erasmus acknowledged this financial compensation will help erase the pain by providing a stable foundation where people can get the culturally-sensitive help they require. However, he was looking for specific words from other authoritative figures.

''An additional apology from the prime minister would clinch this nicely and that is still possible,'' Erasmus said on CBC Television. ''If the government is going to go this far and acknowledge this is something that should never have happened, it wouldn't be that much more to do. It wouldn't hurt to also have it from heads of churches and the pope.''

While it is generally acknowledgedwithin Canada that compensation for school survivors is long overdue, the only criticism has been the timing of this announcement. During a tumultuous week on Parliament Hill, when the three opposing parties were expected to vote on a non-confidence motion to force the dissolution of the government, critics were questioning whether this deal was seen as pre-election campaigning.

''This settlement could have been rolled out last spring but was delayed six months for election timing,'' said member of Parliament Pat Martin, the Indian and Northern Affairs Critic for the left-of-center New Democratic Party.

It was Martin in March who spoke for two hours at a parliamentary committee in favor of a deal of this nature, following the AFN's recommendations that took 18 months to formulate. As the agreement stipulates only those who were alive as of May 31 are entitled to collect, Martin alleged that ''playing politics'' cost hundreds of survivors their opportunity for compensation.

''Fifty survivors per week will never see justice, due to the Liberals manipulating this settlement for their own political advantage,'' Martin told Indian Country Today on Nov. 28, just hours before the non-confidence vote.

Regardless of any possible election or subsequent government, this settlement package will be respected by all political parties. The Conservative Party (right-of-center), should it form the next government, is on record stating it will acknowledge and honor this deal.

Elders believe compensation insufficient

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Despite the recent signing of the largest and most comprehensive compensation package in Canadian history, residential school survivor Clarence Dennis believes this financial aid is a mere pittance and would not fairly represent his suffering.

''That compensation shows we are abused, used, humiliated, degraded and insulted,'' said Dennis, 63. ''To be cured for all of the abuses we've taken and for the funds we need would be $200,000 per person.''

Under the new legislation, school survivors are entitled to a ''10 plus 3'' plan where every person would get $10,000 Canadian for their first year enrolled and $3,000 for every yearthereafter. Dennis, who was in a residential school between the ages of 7 and 14, would be entitled to $34,000.

However, he lists a host of physical and emotional scars he received while in attendance at a government- and church-operated school, wounds that he still harbors a half-century later. Expelled from the Port Alberni institution after telling authorities he was sexually abused, he was sent to juvenile detention and deemed ''incorrigible.'' This became the first of many trips to jail and prison during his next 25 years; and while he has not been incarcerated since the 1980s, Dennis points to his stolen childhood as the root cause for his anger.

Having attended three treatment centers, each for six-week stints, to address his psychological problems, Dennis calculates that for full and proper treatment for school survivors, their spouses and children, medical and professional costs would easily push $200,000 per person. He added that this figure would include neither the physical pain and suffering nor the losses of culture and identity, intangible factors for which a price would be hard to determine.

''They're not obeying their own standard sets of deterrence foundations of our judicial system,'' he said, pointing out that $30,000 - $40,000 per survivor for this general abuse does not provide enough of a financial penalty to prevent this from happening again. (Individual court awards for sexual abuse cases are not included.)

Another Vancouver elder who endured the residential system is Oliver Munro, 71. Even though his family only lived six miles away from his Lytton school, visits home were infrequent during his decade of schooling.

When describing his experiences, Munro's eyes continue to display fear of authority. Articulate and university-educated, with a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology, Munro flinched and referred to the school's headmasters by their surnames as if still in their presence.

He blames that environment for retarding his social skills, including the ability to be intimate.

''When I got married, it was for convenience. Every time I got sick and tired of the kids, I went into the logging camps [to work],'' Munro said.

Although Munro was eventually able to tell his mother that he loved her before she died, because he never received support and nurturing as a child he found it difficult to pass those feelings along to his children. That problem stemmed from within the crowded dormitories where there was no sense of right or wrong in the absence of parental guidance.

''Getting hit every day was nothing, because I thought it was natural.''

Eligible for $40,000, Munro respects how Native negotiators and the federal government have tried to compromise for an acceptable agreement to correct these injustices. But, he succinctly noted, money is not the cure-all for his pain.

''Whatever money we get, it will never, ever pay for what happened. Never.''