Gathering examines schools legacy

Published May 1, 2004


Is reconciliation possible amid the legacy of residential schools?

No clear answer emerged from a two-and-a-half-day conference March 12-14 sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the law faculty of the University of Calgary. Sparked by the government’s appeal of the Blackwater case in British Columbia, the conference illuminated the complexities of the lingering legacy of residential schools.

(The B.C. courts declared the federal government 100 per cent liable for damages caused by residential schools.)

What did emerge was the continued disconnect between two cultures and some proposed steps to heal the rift. Several Canadian academics and lawyers made presentations on the various options for defending claims and seeking damages in the courts. The presentations tilted heavily in this direction, underlining how Canadian courts acknowledge wrongs, errors, abuse, damages, or discrimination and seek remedies through a sliding scale of payments to compensate for damages and injuries. The first day excluded responses from former students in sessions “to set the context.” Their pent-up emotions exploded in emotional exchanges the second day of the conference.

Aboriginal professors, scholars and elders gave faces to the struggle with the intergenerational effects of the schools, from being isolated from family, language and culture in the residential schools.

A family emergency kept one federal minister from attending and a packed portfolio and a stacked schedule reduced to a speech-only the appearance by Denis Coderre, the minister responsible for the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution. However, his senior deputy minister Mario Dion and other members of his staff attended most sessions and were visibly affected by the stories. Some aboriginal speakers respectfully and sometimes grudgingly, noted that Mr. Dion and his staff had “their hearts in the right place,” but that needed to be reflected in government actions.

The gathering emphasized that Canadian laws have limited capacity to deal in specifics or intangibles. Money is being sought by former students to fund healing circles, to help elders in their last days, to reclaim native languages, to recapture lost traditions and culture, while educating the next generation and fostering understanding between the two cultures. Norman Yakalaya, a member of the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories and a survivor of sexual abuse, said the dysfunctional effects caused by lack of parenting, family relationship roles, traditional teachings in language and culture, “stick like Velcro and keep us from being whole.”

The gathering also heard that the process of making claims of physical and/or sexual abuse brings details of the abuse back and many claimants suffer post-traumatic stress. The 50-page form to apply for alternative dispute resolution was conceived as a method to avoid the stress of cross-examination in such cases. But one young woman reported that providing the details deemed essential by the government to validate claims would be harrowing for a 65-year-old grandmother making her first disclosure. Many participants pleaded that the designated money be distributed before the 90,000 former residential school students were further reduced by suicide as well as aging and disease. Alternate forms of redress were suggested to Mr. Dion including one which compensated Japanese-Canadians after the Second World war; it gave each incarcerated person $20,000 and only required a one-page application form. An Irish system redressed former residents of industrial schools through a five-page form designed and administered by the survivors.

Other suggestions from the conference included reviving the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Exploratory Dialogues on Residential Schools of 1998 and 1999 that provided guidance in expediting claims. Also, Bill Wuttunee, a retired lawyer and founder of the National Indian Federation in 1961, encouraged a separate court system with aboriginal judges and lawyers. Tim Christison is a Calgary-based writer and parishioner of the church of St. Stephen.


  • Tim Christison

    Tim Christison is a long time member of the Anglican Church of Canada and is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary.

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