Claimants face quandary over proof of attendance

Published August 30, 2006

Some former students of Indian residential schools who have applied for a common experience payment have been rejected and a lack of appeal process has put them in a quandary about where to turn to for help, said aboriginal representatives recently to a roundtable group.

During a meeting last July, the roundtable group (which includes the Anglican Church of Canada) heard that some common experience payment applicants were denied compensation on the ground that the federal government did not have any records of their attendance at residential schools, said Ellie Johnson, former acting general secretary, who represented the national church during negotiations with the government for a residential schools deal. She said the situation is a cause for concern since it may discourage other applicants from pursuing their claim under the new deal.

Meanwhile, a national group of former students of Indian residential schools is urging the federal government and churches to help ensure that all one-time residents of the schools, including those living on the streets, are aware of the new Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the benefits that are due them.

“We’re very, very concerned,” said Mike Benson, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society. “How do we collectively work together to ensure that those people are part of this process and that they have a clear understanding of what this package means, what it implies and how they can access the supports and help in the package?”

In an interview, Mr. Benson said it is unknown how many former students are living on the streets, but his estimate would be “easily three to four thousand.” He said that others reside in provincial and federal jails as well as mental institutions.

In May, the federal cabinet approved a $1.9-billion settlement package that provides a common experience payment to all former students of Indian residential schools, a process allowing those who suffered sexual or physical abuse to get compensation, funding for healing programs, as well as the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The cabinet also approved an advance on the common experience payment for those over the age of 65; the first cheques of $8,000 were mailed in June. All eligible former students are entitled to a payment of $10,000 plus $3,000 for each additional year spent in residential school.

The agreement, which has been signed by churches that once ran residential schools, needs the approval of nine provincial and territorial courts before it becomes legally binding. The first court hearing, in Ontario, was scheduled for Aug. 29-31.

“We’re working in conjunction with a lot of groups across Canada trying to find ways and making sure that information gets there. But there’s no one group that’s saying ‘we’re going to take the lead’ and that’s what I’m proposing to the churches and the government, that we look at doing a project where we can get it into that inner city and find those people,” said Mr. Benson.

Meanwhile, Mr. Benson, who sits at a roundtable group that is preparing to provide input for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, lauded the Anglican church for its role in the reconciliation efforts between native people, the government and churches. (Anglicans are represented in the roundtable group by retired archbishop Terrence Finlay and Rev. Andrew Wesley.)

“I think it’s really important as a survivor organization that we recognize what the Anglican church has done so far in this process,” said Mr. Benson. “As a survivor group we honour what the Anglican Church has done so far in this process: they’ve made a public apology, they’ve sat at the table with us through hard and good times in pushing this agreement forward and they’ve also honoured survivors by allowing us to have a lead role.”


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