Mike Benson, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society
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 in the streets of Canada, 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 helps in the package?
“I think that’s a key role and responsibility that we really have to take seriously because that’s where a lot of our people are.”
In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Mr. Benson said that there are no statistics about how many former students are living on the streets, but his estimate would be “easily three to four thousand.” He said that there are still others who are 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 to eligible former students. Under the agreement, all eligible former students are entitled to a payment of $10,000 plus $3,000 for each year spent in residential school.
The agreement, which has been signed by churches that once ran these residential schools (including the Anglican Church of Canada), needs the approval of seven provincial and territorial courts before it becomes legally binding. The first court hearing, in Ontario, is 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. He said that the government currently funds three front line staff across the country to bring an information package on the agreement out to all former students. “That’s it,” he said.
The Anglican Council of Indigenous People (ACIP) has expressed concern about the lack of and, sometimes, inaccurate and confusing information circulating in aboriginal communities about the settlement agreement.
Meanwhile, Mr. Benson, who sits at a roundtable group that is fleshing out details of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the government has agreed to fund as part of the agreement, lauded the Anglican Church of Canada for its role in the reconciliation efforts between native people, the government and churches. (The roundtable group includes representatives from churches, native groups and the government; the Anglican Church of Canada is represented by (ret.) Archbishop Terrence Finlay.)
“The Anglican church is portraying to us that they’re really on the same page when we talk about reconciliation and the importance of that. 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.”
Members of the roundtable group are scheduled to meet again July 10 to discuss how they envision the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Several models – including the one set up in post-apartheid South Africa – are being studied.
Issues that need to be addressed include how to prepare not just the aboriginal communities but mainstream Canada for the Commission, added Mr. Benson. “What’s going to come out of it? How do we ensure that this commission does not become just a place where we can go vent and go home?”
One thing that his group would like to see happen is “for every single person that went to any residential school to have the opportunity to get up and say, ‘this is me and this is what happened to me and this is how it affected my life,'” said Mr. Benson. “Obviously, they’re not going to hear every survivor, nor is every survivor going to want to tell their story, but that’s one of our objectives.”
He said that it was important not only for stories about the residential schools to be told, but also for them to become “part of our Canadian history.” Canadians should care about the Commission, he said, because “if we’re going to move forward as a country and the very diverse cultures that we have, we have to recognize and honour the past and what happened.” He added that Canada is seen around the world as a leader in human rights and human rights issues but it has not dealt with First Nations people, the Inuit and Metis people that went through residential schools.
He noted that Canada has apologized to Japanese immigrants for their internment during World War II and most recently, to the Chinese immigrants for the imposition of the head tax, “but they have not apologized to us for what happened in the residential schools.” He expressed the hope that the Commission might be able to “create a safe environment where the government feels safe enough to apologize without worrying about the legal and political ramifications” of such an action.
Mr. Benson said churches have a very important role to play in getting the message out about the commission to their congregations and dioceses. “Yes, it’s going to be painful in some areas. Yes, it’s going to define some stuff that people don’t want or look at stuff that people don’t want to talk about. But the reality is it’s going to happen and how do we ensure that people go there with the intention of moving forward?” he said.
He noted that the Anglican church is in a “unique” position to help move the reconciliation process because it has some dioceses and parishes that are predominantly aboriginal.