In the next few months, compensation cheques for former First Nation students who attended residential schools will start to roll into the Mount Currie community as part of the Canada-wide Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
But for many former students, the settlement represents much more than money in the bank.
Some see it as closure to the horrific experiences they endured at these schools, which were run by churches and funded by the federal government from 1870 to the mid-1970s to “take the Indian out of the Indian”, as former grand chief Matthew Coon Come once said. For others, the settlement has resurrected memories of physical and sexual abuse that have been suppressed for decades.
“Some of them came and sat in my office and in 20 seconds they were just in tears, because it is something more to them than just a piece of paper,” said Frank Wallace, a drug and alcohol counsellor in Mount Currie who has been working with many former students on the settlement applications.
“It is a scary thing for them to finally let it out of the bag. We have to be very aware that they are very sensitive in dealing with it. And we have to deal with them the best we know how to get them to start to live today without having to cry every night or sit at home worried,” he said.
The Indian Residential School Settlement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. It involves $1.9 billion that the government is making available in lump-sum payments to former students in recognition of the horrific experiences endured while attending these schools.
Each survivor who applies will receive $10,000 for the first year they attended, and $3,000 for every subsequent year. The average payment is expected to be around $28,000.
Wallace, who also attended a residential school, said prior to the agreement most survivors did not openly talk about their experiences.
“They’ve told family members or friends briefly, okay. But when questioned somewhat, they say, ‘Oh I told my brother,’ or ‘I told my husband’. That was it. And nothing more was said. Because they just don’t want anybody else to know,” said Wallace.
“They are reluctant to come into my office, because they don’t want to be heard. They don’t want their story out there. But some of them have come forward and told their stories of their sexual abuse and other traumas,” he said, adding that some survivors are too afraid to fill out the paper work.
He said many survivors still harbour fears that the church will come after them, or they view Mount Currie as a “safe zone” and never leave the reserve.
Sharon Thira, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society, said it is common for survivors to suffer from post-traumatic stress.
“With post-dramatic stress disorder, you expect to see somebody who can’t forget their residential school experience. They have reoccurring memories of what happened. And so these memories impact them on a day-to-day basis. It makes it impossible for them to function sometimes,” said Thira.
She said many survivors also experience hyper vigilance, where they are constantly on watch for some kind of danger, and as a result are very agitated.
“And then there are people who avoid anything to do with residential schools. And there are some people who are absolutely numb,” she explained.
Part of the settlement includes funding for programs to help survivors heal from the horrors of their past, including $125 million going to healing programs, $95 million into health support programs, and $20 million for commemoration activities. Spouses, parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren of survivors are all eligible to participate in these programs.
According to Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, the arm of the federal government dealing with compensation payments, only 37 of the approximate 14,000 former students in B.C. opted out of the settlement.
“Overwhelmingly, people want to get the money, but many feel that it is low. However, they also recognize that there won’t be another settlement coming, so they are happy to have some form of acknowledgement,” she said.
A majority of those who opted out suffered the most extreme abuse and trauma and want to sue the federal government and the church instead of receiving lump-sum payments.
“It is not a perfect settlement. It is by no means going to address the depth of the residential school experience for many survivors. But it is an opportunity for survivors to come to terms with what happened. And I think it is a chance for communities to take a proactive stance,” said Thira.
She added that most survivors are still waiting for the federal government to issue a formal apology.
Wallace agreed that most survivors in Mount Currie are looking forward to receiving the common experience payments — which Service Canada should deliver to the reserve before mid-October.
“Everybody is kind of anxious to get something for what happened to them… It is not enough. But it is something. It is better than nothing, right? To start to move on again and know that we’ll have some other programs to help them through those other things,” he said.
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