The federal government's Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement–the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history–will take effect on September 19.
At least $1.9 billion will be made available in lump-sum payments to former First Nations students who attended one of the 130 boarding schools set up across the country by the government and run by church congregations. For more than a century, starting in the 1800s, more than 150,000 aboriginal Canadians went through these schools, where they were forced to speak English and unlearn their traditional way of life. Matthew Coon Come, a former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, once said that the schools were meant "to take the Indian out of the Indian".
These institutions became houses of horror for a number of students who suffered physical and sexual abuse. According to the West Vancouver–based Indian Residential School Survivors Society, many students died due to illness, beatings, attempts to escape, and suicide. Under the deal, a separate amount of $960 million has been set aside to compensate Native people who can prove before an adjudicator that they have been abused. The federal government estimates that there are 80,000 Natives alive today who attended these schools. One of these survivors is Gerry Oldman, who was 12 when he was taken from his family to live at a residential school in Kamloops.
When Oldman first talked to the Georgia Straight in April this year, the 58-year-old Stl'atl'imx man said he wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to be a part of the settlement. "That's money they're giving away for taking away our culture," he said at that time.
Under the terms of the agreement, those who didn't want to be a party to the deal had until August 20 to opt out. They could then sue the government and the churches on their own, if they chose to do so.
Oldman was waiting for his wife in downtown Vancouver when the Straight reached him by phone days after the end of the opt-out period. "I'm not gonna tell you," he said, laughing, when asked what he had decided to do. "It's true; I was conflicted about it."
Valerie Hache, a spokesperson for the federal Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, told the Straight that some 201 former students have opted out of the settlement.
Oldman, a workshop facilitator in healing programs for survivors and their families, said that the settlement will bring closure to some people. "For others, I'm not sure," he said. "Everybody has a perspective on it."
As far as Oldman is concerned, the deal represents the best option for the Canadian government. "They want to avoid a trial [and] that's why they're settling out," he said. "They know they're going to lose if they go to trial–not only in court costs but maybe they're afraid of the possibilities."
Asked how he feels at present, Oldman said that in the past few months he has stopped paying attention to his experiences in the Kamloops residential school that drove him later to a life of drugs and alcohol.
"It's a done deal, right?" Oldman said. "People heal, and if they don't, we're going to work hard to help people to heal. I'm not upset about it anymore or anything because it's done. It's over."
According to the IRSSA, the settlement also includes spouses, parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren of former residential-school students. Although they aren't all entitled to receive lump-sum payments, they are eligible to participate in other programs that are part of the deal. These include healing programs ($125 million), health support ($95 million), and commemoration activities ($20 million).
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission will also be established–with a funding of $60 million–to come up with a definitive account of the residential schools' legacy. On May 1, 2007, the House of Commons, voting 257-0, apologized to the survivors of the boarding schools. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to issue a federal apology, tying this matter to the prospective results of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's work.
Based on federal estimates, there are about 250,000 to 350,000 Canadians who are descendants of former residential-school students.
Harley Wylie is one of these descendants. He is both Huu-ay-aht First Nation and American in ancestry. His mother went to a residential school in Port Alberni where she was regularly beaten for speaking her Native language. According to Wylie, she took to drink in her adult life and put up with an abusive husband. "It was when I was already grown up that I fully understood my mother," Wylie told the Straight.
As a young boy, Wylie witnessed his father shoot his mother to death. His father then turned his rifle on himself. After the deaths of his parents, Wylie lived among relatives who were also former students of residential schools. He recalled that it was like he himself had lived in one of those schools. As beatings were a normal occurrence in residential schools, so was physical abuse common in households of survivors.
Wylie has been working in various capacities to help survivors and their families deal with the intergenerational trauma brought about by the forced attempt to assimilate Native children into white society. He is currently the Native liaison officer of the Provincial Capital Commission, a Victoria-based Crown corporation.
Wylie said that he has never considered taking part in the settlement. "For me, money is not healing," he said. "To help others to make a better world is healing."