Ten former students of Indian residential schools, among them former Keewatin bishop Gordon Beardy, took the podium on the last day of the Ontario hearing for the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and raised objections to parts of the deal struck this year between the federal government, churches and some native groups.
Bishop Beardy, who is Oji-Cree, said the agreement’s provision limiting the Common Experience Payment (CEP) to all residential schools students who were alive as of May 30, 2005 was “unacceptable.”
“To those of us with family members who died before May 30, 2005, this is not acceptable for us,” he said. Bishop Beardy had three siblings who attended residential schools: Tommy Albert, who died in 1987, Martha Lavina Kakepetum, who died in 2002 and Maurice, who disappeared 40 years ago. Tommy returned from residential schools “a very angry man,” said Bishop Beardy; Maurice was “stabbed and sexually abused and came back home for awhile and then left and disappeared,” and Martha went to the Pelican Falls residential school at a “very young age” and stayed there for six or seven years, he said.
Bishop Beardy, who was the first to approach the podium of the courtroom packed with former students who had suffered abuse while in residential schools, also took issue with the list of schools covered by the agreement, saying it was incomplete.
He also told Ontario Superior Court Justice Warren Winkler, who presided over the three-day hearing, that the government must address the “serious concern” about missing records of former students. He said that there are students, some in their 80s, who have been told by government employees that there is no record of their attendance in residential schools. (Anglican church negotiators had also earlier raised this concern.)
“Some of them were those who fled and escaped because of the abuse and stayed for a year and they don’t speak English,” he told Justice Winkler, “Our people are poor and struggling, I ask you to seriously consider our concerns.”
Rev. Andrew Wesley, a Cree priest who runs the urban native ministry of Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, also raised the issue of missing records, citing his own experience.
“I myself requested for my records and received a letter saying I never did attend the residential schools,” said Mr. Wesley. “But I did my time for 10 years.” Mr. Wesley attended the Anglican-run Bishop Horden Hall residential school in Moose Fort, Moose Factory, and the Roman-Catholic-run St. Anne residential school in Fort Albany, both in northern Ontario. Mr. Wesley, who said he suffered abuse in residential schools, said he at least has a copy of a school report card, which had been received and kept by his parents. There are many others who have absolutely nothing, he said.
Two other objectors raised the issue of missing students who never returned from the schools and whose parents wonder, to this day, what became of them. The issue of missing students is not mentioned in the agreement.
“Nobody has mentioned the children that passed away or weren’t sent home. Some weren’t even registered,” a teary-eyed Shirley Roach said. “There should be a recognition of them because they were there and their parents never saw them again. They never came home.”
Other objections focused on the amount of the CEP (the agreement provides a payment of $10,000 plus $3,000 for each additional year spent in residential school), which some referred to as “unjust” and “not enough to compensate for the pain” that they went through. There were an additional 100 written objections submitted to the Ontario court.
In response, government lawyers said that the amount was “the best we could get” and was a “step in the right direction.”
During the hearing, Justice Winkler clarified a concern raised by some former students who said that lawyers had informed them that aging claimants who received the advance CEP payment of $8,000 are to repay the money in the event that the agreement is not finalized. The agreement must be approved by nine provincial courts to become final (Ontario’s was the first court to examine the deal).
“No one is required to pay the $8,000 back. It’s a demonstration of good will,” said the government lawyers, in response to a query made by Justice Winkler.
At the hearing, one of the government’s lawyers, Paul Vickery, presented Justice Winkler with an affidavit that set out the government’s plan for achieving the agreement’s goal of having 2,500 hearings each year for cases involving physical and sexual abuse that will undergo the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). Earlier, Justice Winkler had questioned how “realistic” the goal was.
The affidavit specified the government’s “current planning assumptions,” which include the hiring of 445 people to implement the process.
“I was very glad to hear him (Mr. Vickery) talk about how the IAP was going to be administered. I, too, had concerns,” said Ellie Johnson, former acting general secretary, who represented the Anglican Church of Canada in negotiations for the revised agreement.
But Ms. Johnson said the affidavit did not address the issue of missing student records. She called the situation “very unfair” and said that while CEP claimants may appeal a national administration committee, those who have filed for advance payment have no such recourse.
“One of our jobs is to be ready with our (church) records if the attendance records are not found. There might be photographs that can help. People will need alternatives,” she said in an interview.
At the end of the hearing, Justice Winkler thanked the former students who aired their views on the agreement. “It was difficult for you to say what you said today. I don’t know whether I could have the ability to do the same and I admire you for that,” he said.
He also thanked the lawyers for both plaintiffs and defendants for having achieved the “gargantuan task” of coming to an agreement that includes a $1.9-billion compensation package for an estimated 86,000 claimants.
Justice Winkler said he was not certain whether to issue his ruling on the agreement before or after the eight other courts are done with their own hearings. The last hearing is scheduled Oct. 17 at the Supreme Court of the Yukon.