Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor and former chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Photo: Diana Swift
The more than 100 years of abusive Indian residential schools is a dark and missing chapter in the history of Canada, Chief Phil Fontaine told delegates to Sharing the Truth, a national forum on creating a national research centre on the residential schools. “We must reach out to the whole country and all Canadians and write this missing chapter,” said Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “Never again must people be abused because of their race. We must involve universities, high schools, church groups and even the private sector to embrace this piece of our country’s history.”
Fontaine, a residential school survivor and former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was a principal leader in the fight to secure compensation for the survivors of the infamous residential schools, which uprooted indigenous children from their families and sought to eradicate their native culture and languages.
As Chief George Erasmus noted, the schools were part of an education policy that sought to transfer useful European skills to Indian children. Beginning in the 1870s, these schools became instruments of government control, dispossession and deculturation. The boarding schools were run mainly by churches-Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian-and were the sites of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Residents often performed menial labour and some children died trying to run away.
The schools’government-backed goals of stripping native children of their culture and replacing it with western European values meets the United Nations’ criteria for genocide.
Fontaine outlined the long and complex struggle that began in the 1990s and culminated in an agreement in principle among all parties at one minute before midnight on November 21, 2005. In the early days, the federal government wanted just to compensate individuals-the 12,000 to 15,000 survivors who had made claims. “It did not want to deal with a widespread race-based violation of human rights,” said Fontaine. In 1998, Ottawa responded in a very limited way and there was no effort on the part of the Canadian populace to push it to do right by the survivors, he said.
For Ottawa, the issue was strictly monetary compensation and there was no talk of apologies, rights violations and reconciliation. In addition, rates of compensation varied unfairly by province and church. “People came to us and said, ‘This process is really revictimizing the survivors,'” Fontaine said.
In 2004 a broad-based committee of lawyers, survivors and other stakeholders tabled a report that spoke to the flaws of the government’s responses and the elements needed for fair resolution: apology, compensation, a truth commission, a commemorative fund and research centre, and payment for past and future legal counsel. A tentative deal was struck with Ottawa in May 2005 and contained virtually every recommendation that was listed in the 2004 report. “We knew that cash without an apology, without recording the history was simply not good enough,” he said. Nevertheless, the cash settlement of at least $1.7 billion was the largest in Canadian history.
Fontaine urged Canadians to come to grips with this shameful period in its history. “They must accept in the fullest possible way that the residential schools are their story. If we do not move beyond the survivors, we will have failed future generations.”