Frustration level peaked

Published May 2, 2000

Another prime example of Natives taking financial matters into their own hands comes in the form of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a $350-million pool of cash the federal government established in 1998, following its apology to the Aboriginal people of Canada. The fund is to be used over 10 years to meet the needs of "Aboriginal people affected by the legacy of sexual and physical abuse in residential schools, including intergenerational impacts." Specifically, the goals of the foundation are the prevention of future abuse, healing between those who caused and those who suffered abuse, and healing between Aboriginals and other Canadians. A typical foundation meeting saw 70 or so people gathered in the ballroom of a Thunder Bay, Ont., hotel last October. The day-long session was opened by an energetic, 83-year-old elder named Red Sky, who attended Cecilia Jeffrey residential school in Kenora, Ont., in the 1920s.

After the opening, excitement quickly gave way to a palpable tension as people stood and addressed questions toward the dais and the foundation directors at the front of the ballroom. Most people wanted to know exactly how the foundation’s 15 directors select those applications that receive funds, and why many of their own applications had been rejected. Board members repeatedly explained that they are duty-bound to follow the rules set out in a funding agreement with the federal government. No one questioned the fairness of the process, but many in attendance were unhappy that money could not be extended to programs designed to address cultural abuse; only physical- and sexual-abuse programs qualify. Toward the end of a long day, the frustration level peaked when a Native woman stood and took issue with the layout of the room. She didn’t like the idea of a raised stage. "It’s very intimidating," she said. "This really should have been done in a circle." A few minutes later, attendees and directors alike were exhausted and the meeting mercifully ended – in a circle.

Anger at a Healing Foundation meeting is just the tip of an emotional iceberg that has been floating ominously through Native affairs in Canada for decades. In 1996, the Royal Commission warned: "The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada has long been troubled and recently has shown signs of slipping into more serious trouble." Violence, as the commissioners and others like Willie Hodgson have warned, is a real possibility.

The sorry legacy of Indian residential schooling is readily apparent at St. George’s chapel just outside Lytton. The century-old structure has seen better days. Built in 1901, a stone’s throw from the Fraser River, and in the shadow of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains, it was once the spiritual heart of this hamlet in the B.C. interior. Now, it is just a reminder of the sad residential-school era that has left many in this small community struggling to come to grips with harrowing childhood experiences. Beyond the chapel’s sturdy wood-and-stone exterior are 30 dusty pews that make a jumbled procession toward a decrepit altar. Worn hymnals with broken spines lie scattered about the floor. On the back wall an intruder has painted a large A with a circle around it, making the symbol for anarchy the most outstanding feature in this abandoned house of God. There is talk among Native elders of restoring the old Anglican chapel and using it for Bible classes and other gatherings. But that would take considerable money, and money is one thing neither Natives nor the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo have much of these days. The diocese is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy as a result of the Mowatt case and eight similar lawsuits that have been filed by former students at St. George’s.


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