Aboriginal survivors of Canada’s residential school era have mixed emotions about the Canadian federal government’s November 23 decision to pay $2 billion in reparations to survivors. Although satisfying to some, the financial compensation has left other survivors feeling insulted, if not infuriated.
The unprecedented reparations deal includes a $10,000 "common experience" payment to the approximately 90,000 living students who attended the residential schools; an additional $3,000 for every year the students attended; nearly $200 million in funding for healing and educational programs; and the option of pursuing individual claims of abuse through the courts. Survivors 65 years and older can apply for an early payment of $8,000.
"You can’t put a price tag on the lost cultural languages or the people being taken from their homes for years [at a time]," said Mike Benson, Executive Director of the National Residential School Survivor Society (NRSSS). "But for some of the elderly survivors, they are finally getting acknowledgement [that this happened]."
The residential school system in Canada operated from the 1870s through the 1950s and ’60s, with the last school closing late into the 20th century, according to the Indian Residential Schools Resolution website. Residential schools, which were funded by the federal government and often operated by churches, were designed to transform aboriginal Canadians into mainstream Christians, and have been blamed for the disappearance of aboriginal languages, as well as the physical and sexual abuse of the children who attended.
Benson said that under the agreement, it should now be "easier for survivors to prove their claims" of abuse, which will be settled in addition to the common experience payment. The application forms have been shortened from their original length of 56 pages, making it "easier to put claims forward," Benson said.
Beyond the physical and sexual abuse, the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada accuses the residential schools of the death and disappearance of nearly 50,000 children during the years of the schools’ operation, although no other organizations could confirm that number.
The Commission, which could not be reached for comment, released a public statement on November 26 in response to the government’s compensation plan, calling it a "gag order" and a "paltry bribe."
"This bribe and legal gagging is being presented as a final 'resolution' of the claims of residential school survivors, as if such unspeakable crimes as mass sterilizations, gang rape, ritualistic torture and murder are resolvable by or reducible to an issue of money," the Commission said in its statement.
The Commission is calling on all victims to refuse payments from the government and is demanding that the churches and the government be taken to an international War Crimes Tribunal for their "crimes against humanity."
Benson said that although a war tribunal would make the world more aware of what Canada had done, he does not think a war tribunal would change anything, asking, "What would it do for the survivors?"
However, Benson said that he was not completely satisfied with the reparations deal, either. "It does not address all the artifacts, records, and archival records that the Churches and government has," said Benson. "The archives should be turned over to survivors and survivors’ organizations."
Benson also said he was disappointed that none of the survivors who died prior to May 30, when the agreement was first signed, will receive any recognition.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said in a press release that "no amount of money will ever heal the emotional scars," though he believes that the reparations package "will contribute to the journey on the path to healing."
Both the AFN and the NRSSS said they will continue to pursue the public apology that had been a part of the original agreement, but that the Minister Premier has not yet issued.
Don Kelly, communications director for the AFN, explained that the public apology was not released in conjunction with the reparations deal because there was no "legal mechanism" for the Minister Premier to apologize within the court-ordered deal.
Benson, disappointed about the lack of apology, said he suspects Minister Premier Paul Martin is waiting until the conclusion of this year’s federal elections before finally releasing a formal statement of apology.
"The government of Canada wants closure on this," said Benson. "They want to close this file, this chapter of history. It reflects on them in the international community that it’s Canada—guardian of human rights—and [its] natives are still fighting for compensation."