Groups working with former students of residential schools have welcomed the settlement with the federal government with a mixture of relief that there is finally an agreement and despair over their dying friends who won’t live long enough to get any money from alternative dispute resolution processes.
“My people are dying, and they are dying without redress,” said Michael Cachagee, a political assistant at the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Thunder Bay, Ont., and an alumnus of the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
However, he said, “I’ve looked at the agreement and it is pretty well on line.” He gave credit to the Anglican church for pushing for a settlement. “Their expediency has been far faster than anyone else.”
According to the agreement, announced Nov. 20, General Synod, the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada, will contribute $25 million over five years toward a litigation settlement fund. The agreement is now under scrutiny by the church’s 30 dioceses who must each ratify it.
The federal government estimates that there are now about 5,000 lawsuits representing more than 12,000 plaintiffs concerning treatment they received in native residential schools. The potential total cost of settlements has been estimated at $1 billion.
Without an agreement, the church could have been liable for up to $60 million in settlement costs, plus ongoing litigation costs. Prior to the agreement, the church was spending about $100,000 a month on its legal defence.
The Anglican church, which was involved in operating 26 of the 80 schools, has been named by more than 2,100 plaintiffs.
Mr. Cachagee said he harboured no bitterness toward the church over its involvement in the schools. “The church is basically the messenger. It did the dirty work for the government.”
He said he went to residential school in the 1940s. “Those were the worst times of all,” he said. “I am worried that the people who went to residential school in that period will be all dead before things are settled.” He mentioned one man with prostate cancer who is waiting for financial compensation. “He hopes to see something before he dies.”
Saul Day, 71, of the Pic River First Nation, runs the Biidaaban Holistic Healing Lodge in Heron Bay, Ont. He attended a Roman Catholic residential school for 13 years.
“I think it’s the right direction to take,” he said.
Mr. Day runs a 10-day healing program for former students of residential schools.
“It’s difficult for them to come for healing,” he said. “We grew up being scared of the church and the law. We never got over it.”
Mr. Day said he feels money alone will not heal people. “I encourage people to go for healing first before they deal with the compensation issues.”
He worries that many former students have no concept of money management.
“I’m concerned that these settlements might do some harm. We don’t understand what financial interest is all about. We never had any way to learn about money. ‘Compound interest’ might as well be Chinese.”
Roland Chrisjohn, an Oneida and professor of native studies at the University of St. Thomas in Fredericton, has previously described residential schools as a form of genocide under the definition of the United Nations genocide convention.
In an interview, he called the new settlement a “travesty.”
“It doesn’t address any of the real issues,” he said. “Canada
didn’t have any trouble (condemning and calling to account) when it was the Nazis at the end of World War II. Canada only has a problem (acknowledging responsibility) when they are the culprits and the Indians are the victims.”
It has been his hope that the church would behave like a church. Instead, “it acted like a corporation, like a government” in its response to the residential schools issue.
“Is a $25 million payout sufficient to undo the church’s harm in 129 years of genocide? It’s an obscenity.”
One former Shingwauk student does not share Mr. Chrisjohn’s views. “You have to forgive the parties that were involved,” said Ernest McGraw, 71, of the Sucker Creek Ojibway band and an elder who is active in the Anglican church in his community on Manitoulin Island, Ont.
“I’ve been on the healing journey myself, and been sober for 12 years,” he said. “I forgave the churches and the government for what they done.” Still, Mr. McGraw, who spent three and a half years at Shingwauk, said he would not mind getting some compensation.
“It would be nice if they could get it straightened out soon. All our people are dying out.”
He does frequent speaking engagements about “how to live and to learn to forgive. A lot of people here are still angry, but it won’t do them any good.”
He added that he thinks money from the settlement fund won’t help all that much. “The main thing is to make the best of your life. You can’t go around the country with anger inside you.”